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Bronze is bittersweet for Lightning goalie

Nikolai Khabibulin helps Russian teammates beat Belarus 7-2, but his expectations were higher.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2002

Nikolai Khabibulin helps Russian teammates beat Belarus 7-2, but his expectations were higher.

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Nikolai Khabibulin began the Olympics by receiving the gold medal he did not get after the 1992 Games. He ended them Saturday by getting bronze after Russia's 7-2 victory over the tournament's biggest surprise, Belarus.

Despite the medal, Khabibulin had a bad taste in his mouth because he expected much more.

"I think it's disappointing," he said. "I think we had a good enough team to win the gold medal. But at the same time, nobody gave us bronze without any work. So it's hard to say. We really thought we could win the gold so it's a disappointment."

His gold medal, well, that was nice, but ...

"I don't think the gold medal had anything to do with it," he said. "It was 10 years ago and it just happens that I got it now. If you don't win, it's not a success."

Khabibulin did his part. After three shaky games, the Lightning goalie played to the level seen most of the season in Tampa.

His 419 minutes, 12 seconds were most among goalies as were the 223 shots he faced and 207 saves. He had a .930 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average.

His teammates also deserve credit. After an emotional 3-2 loss to the United States in Friday's semifinal, Russia put together an effort that showed character with seven different players scoring.

Khabibulin said two meetings, one with just the players and another with coach Slava Fetisov, did the trick.

"He told us that we could not go home empty, and we could not lose to Belarus," Khabibulin said. "It was a tough game because we spent a lot of emotions (Friday) night. It was tough to get up for the game and tough to concentrate, but everybody did as well as they could."

"Our players didn't have time to collect their strengths," Fetisov said.

Good thing they had Khabibulin.

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