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Khabibulin shrugs at return

The Lightning goalie says he's not treating his first game against Phoenix any differently.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002


PHOENIX -- What if they boo?

Nikolai Khabibulin has heard it before from Coyotes fans. But when he was the hometown goaltender, it was a sign of affection for the "Bulin Wall."

This time, it may be a sign of hostility.

Khabibulin returns to America West Arena tonight for the first time since an acrimonious, almost two-season holdout ended with his trade to the Lightning and resurrection as one of the league's best goalies.

If Khabibulin is concerned about his reception, he did not let on.

"I can't really worry about it," he said Saturday. "People pay money to come and watch the game. They can say whatever they want."

Asked if the game had personal significance, Khabibulin shrugged. More important, he said, is what it means to a team that has lost five straight and has not scored in more than 127 minutes.

"We really need a victory right now, whether we're playing Phoenix or anybody else, it doesn't matter," he said. "At the same time, I need to stay with my own little game plan in order to play well."

Khabibulin regained his elite form quicker than most expected.

The 28-year-old was one of the first eight players named to the Russian Olympic team. Going into Saturday's games his .933 save percentage was third among those playing at least 10 games (teammate Kevin Weekes was second at .934), he was tied for second with five shutouts and ninth with a 2.08 goals-against average. He has more than justified his three-plus season, $14.75-million contract and, even if he won't admit it, has made a statement that his holdout, which took on a personal edge with then-owner Richard Burke and created some bad feelings among teammates, was justified.

"It was tough," Coyotes defenseman Teppo Numminen said. "But it was something we couldn't do anything about. It was about money and they couldn't find the right salary."

The Coyotes offered a three-year, $9-million deal. Khabibulin -- whose rights the Lightning acquired in March with defenseman Stan Neckar for right wing Mike Johnson, defenseman Paul Mara, prospect Ruslan Zainullin and a second-round draft choice -- wanted about $15-million.

He thought he was going to get it when ownership changed to a group headed by Steve Ellman and Wayne Gretzky. But the team's lousy economics dictated a fire sale, and the Coyotes dumped Khabibulin and high-priced stars Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk.

Only Numminen, right wing Shane Doan and goaltender Robert Esche remain from the 1998-99 team that was Khabibulin's last in the Valley of the Sun. That is why he said it is not personal.

"I don't think I have anything to prove to that team," Khabibulin said. "I thought that when Gretzky got control of the team he didn't screw me up and decided to move me and proceeded very quickly. And the old ownership is not there anymore. So it's kind of like another game.

"I have to think about it like that. If you don't, you try to do too much and when you do that, you don't play as well."

Still, distractions will abound.

Khabibulin has friends in the Phoenix area and keeps a house in Scottsdale.

The Arizona Republic ran a story comparing Khabibulin to Coyotes goaltender Sean Burke, and Phoenix coach Bob Francis said he does not regret missing the chance to coach Khabibulin.

To Khabibulin's credit, he said he will attend today's optional morning skate, which likely will attract much local media.

"Nik is a pro," said Lightning coach John Tortorella, who knew Khabibulin as a Coyotes assistant. "The No. 1 thing on Nik's mind is that he knows we need a win and he'd like to steal one and he'd like to win it himself. That will override anything that goes on around him."

Whether they boo or not.

TONIGHT: LIGHTNING AT COYOTES

WHEN/WHERE: 8; America West Arena, Phoenix.

RADIO: WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: The Lightning has not scored in 127 minutes, 34 seconds. If it does not score by 19:01 into tonight's second period, it will break the team record of 166:34 set in March 2000. The Coyotes are 14-3-2-2 at home and are tied with the Blackhawks for fewest home losses in regulation. Tampa Bay is 6-14-2-1 on the road and has lost consecutive 2-0 road games. Phoenix will be without RW and former Lightning Mike Johnson (knee) and LW Brad May (broken ribs). Krystofer Kolanos leads all rookies with four game-winning goals and is second at plus-8. The Coyotes have won four of five and are 3-0-1 in their past four at home. Going into Saturday's games, Sean Burke's .926 save percentage was seventh among goaltenders who played at least 10 games. Lightning G Nikolai Khabibulin was third at .933. Phoenix is 7-3-3-1 against the East. Tampa Bay is 8-5-1 against the West. This is the only meeting. The Coyotes lead the series 11-6-0 and are 6-3-0 at home. The Lightning hasn't won at Phoenix since February 1997.

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