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GAME: Minnesota Wild (5-2-1) at Chicago Blackhawks (2-5-0).

TIME: Sunday, 7 p.m. EDT.

The Chicago Blackhawks aren't off to the kind of start they anticipated. Nikolai Khabibulin is one of the main reasons why.

Off to a dreadful start with his new team, Khabibulin will likely be in net when the Blackhawks return from a four-day layoff to take on the surging Minnesota Wild.

Khabibulin, largely considered the premier player at his position on the market in the offseason, has struggled since signing a $27 million, four-year contract in August.

The Russian goaltender posted a 1.71 goals-against average during the 2003-04 playoffs on his way to helping the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup. He has yet to look anything remotely like that player with the Blackhawks.

Khabibulin allowed all six goals in Tuesday's 6-2 loss to Vancouver, upping his GAA to 3.83, to go along with an equally disturbing .849 save percentage.

"It has to get better," Khabibulin said. "I have to make saves to keep us in. I'm not very happy about it, but there's no sense getting frustrated."

Khabibulin isn't the only Blackhawk off to a slow start.

Defenseman Adrian Aucoin, who signed a $16-million, four-year free agent deal in August, had missed four games with a groin strain, but decided to play against the Canucks and re-aggravated the injury. He is day-to-day.

The Wild will likely pose another significant threat. Minnesota is off to an impressive start, thanks to a high-octane offense and solid goaltending.

Known in the past as a defense-first team under coach Jacques Lemaire, the Wild have found the new rules designed to increase scoring to their liking. They have scored 30 goals in their first eight games, good enough for fourth in the Western Conference, and came into the weekend leading the NHL in power-play and penalty killing percentage.

Brian Rolston had a goal to extend his scoring streak to five games, and Marian Gaborik added two assists in Minnesota's 3-2 come-from-behind win over St. Louis on Saturday. Andrei Zyuzin and Marc Chouinard also scored for the Wild, who have won three straight overall.

"When things are going good, the puck starts rolling your way," Chouinard said.

As poorly as Khabibulin has played, Minnesota goalie Manny Fernandez has been just the opposite. Fernandez, who finished with 38 saves Saturday, including all 18 he faced in the final period, has allowed just four goals in his last three games.

STANDINGS: Wild - 11 points, 2nd place, 2 PB, Northwest Division. Blackhawks - 4 points, 4th place, 12 PB, Central Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Wild - Chouinard, 6 goals; Todd White, 7 assists and 9 points; Derek Boogaard, 19 PIM. Blackhawks - Pavel Vorobiev, 5 goals and 8 points; Tyler Arnason and Brent Seabrook, 5 assists; Matthew Barnaby, 15 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through Oct. 21): Wild - Power play: 31.3 percent (10 for 32), 1st in NHL. Penalty killing: 95.6 percent (43 for 45), 1st. Blackhawks - Power play: 13.6 percent (6 for 44), 20th in NHL. Penalty killing: 80.0 percent (40 for 50), 22nd.

GOALTENDERS: Wild - Dwayne Roloson (2-2-0, 1 SO, 2.27 GAA); Fernandez (3-0-1, 0, 1.31). Blackhawks - Khabibulin (2-4-0, 0, 3.83); Craig Anderson (0-1-0, 0, 4.14).

2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Wild, 3-1-0.

LAST MEETING: March 25, 2004; Wild, 8-2. At Chicago, Alexandre Daigle scored twice and Pascal DuPuis had four assists as the Wild set the franchise record for goals in a single game.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Wild - 1-1-1 on the road; Blackhawks - 1-2-0 at home.

Associated Press
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