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Khabibulin puts together a solid season in Chicago

by Larry Wigge
Nikolai Khabibulin has had that stoic, not-so-happy look on his face for a long time ... maybe since he helped the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.

"A lot of ups and downs, a lot of downs, since that day," Khabibulin said in the days leading up to the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs. "No one can ever take your memories away from you -- the thrill I felt standing in the town square in Minsk and the Bellarussian Palace of Sport with the Stanley Cup in front of all my family and friends.

"And no one can tell me I can't do it all over again ... in a different city and with a different team just like Patrick Roy did, winning two more Stanley Cups in Denver after his first two in Montreal."

Goalies don't have to pass an IQ test or produce a high score on the SATs, but they have to be smart -- even if they choose to stand in front of shots coming at them in excess of 100 mph and from all angles and through screens. The good ones challenge some shooters and trick others by showing them an opening and just as quickly take it away.

Khabby is 36 now, but he can still replay the playoff run over and over in his mind, especially the final 12 minutes of Game 7, when the Flames, who trailed 2-0, buzzed the net, getting a goal by Craig Conroy and nearly another on a glorious scoring opportunity by Jordan Leopold with just over four minutes to play.

It's ironic that after Khabibulin posted a microscopic 1.71 goals-against average with five shutouts in winning all 16 games for the Lightning in that playoff run, he and the team had to part ways because Tampa Bay couldn't keep that high-salaried bunch together. It's also funny that in Nikolai's first playoff action since that year, his first opponent winds up being Calgary once again.

The bottom line here, as it is with all goaltenders, is stopping the puck -- and throughout his career, Khabibulin has been a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Good at times ... and yet very inconsistent at others.

Since leaving Tampa Bay for a four-year, $27 million deal in Chicago, the mystery has returned. How else could you explain GM Dale Tallon feeling he had to go out and sign goaltender Cristobal Huet to a four-year, $22.5 million free-agent deal last summer? The Sverdlovsk, Russia, native, struggled from the start and found himself on waivers -- where he went unclaimed and was untradeable because of his high salary and inconsistency of play. New coach Joel Quenneville gave Khabby a chance to reclaim the No. 1 job then. After a decent stretch of games, Nikolai suffered a groin injury that caused him to miss 12 games in February. Since his return March 15, he's started all but three games and seems on a roll as his 3-0 record and 0.66 GAA since early April underscores.

"The thing that can really help our team is his past experience because we're lacking in that area," Quenneville said of Khabibulin, who was in net for the Game 1 overtime win over the Flames. "He's given an indication that he can rise to the occasion -- and we're going to need him."

That Lightning team finished first in the Eastern Conference, but like the Blackhawks had a relatively young core of talent and not much winning experience in the playoffs.

"We thought we had a pretty decent team that year, but I don't think we had expectations of winning the whole thing," Khabibulin said when asked to compare the teams. "As we started playing, we felt better and better and wanted it more and more. It kind of built up and before you know it you're in the Finals and you just go for it.

"I think the guys here are pretty confident. We have a good group of guys here and I think that's important in the playoffs when you want to do well for the guy sitting next to you."

Khabibulin's role becomes extra important when you consider how the Flames like to drive to the net and do anything they can to distract the netminder -- something a less experienced puck-stopper might have big trouble handling.

"I think the guys here are pretty confident. We have a good group of guys here and I think that's important in the playoffs when you want to do well for the guy sitting next to you."
-- Nikolai Khabibulin

This Chicago team, of course, has completely changed since Nik came on board -- becoming reborn in the past two seasons with the influx of young talent such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd. That's another front where the Stanley Cup-winning experience of a Khabibulin and Samuel Pahlsson comes in.

For a second, Khabibulin passed over the problems he has had in the last four seasons in Chicago -- the waivers, the trade rumors -- and recalled the days that led to his decision to pick the Blackhawks over a number of other suitors he had in the summer of 2005.

"I remember when I was in Winnipeg and going into Chicago and feeling the tradition of playing against one of the Original Six teams in the NHL," Khabibulin said with a renewed vigor. "I liked the sales pitch Dale Tallon made. He seemed very sincere about putting together a good team. And I really liked the idea of getting a chance to work with (goaltending consultant) Vladislav Tretiak.

"And I liked the challenge. Winning the Stanley Cup felt good. I remember thinking -- Why can't I do it again in Chicago?"

In his last 10 starts of the regular season, Khabibulin went 8-1-1, with a 1.85 goals-against average and two shutouts ... and some very positive vibes.

I remember asking Tallon a short time after the signing if he needed to add a few perks to get Khabibulin to sign in Chicago. He got a curious look on his face before saying, "Perks? We didn't need to add a membership to a country club, a car or anything like that. We sold Chicago to Nik. That plus 6.75 million perks."

The perk now for Nikolai Khabibulin is simple -- another chance to compete in the playoffs with a young and talented team, plus a contract-year shot in the arm for a goaltender who still remembers the dream that brought him to Chicago on that August day in 2005.

No savior ... just a guy looking to make a bunch of saves against the Calgary Flames again.
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