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Lightning could ride goalie to playoffs

If a postseason berth comes down to the final few games, you want Nikolai Khabibulin in net.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 16, 2002

If a postseason berth comes down to the final few games, you want Nikolai Khabibulin in net.

BRANDON -- Like most athletes, Nikolai Khabibulin loves playing in big games.

The difference is, the Lightning goaltender can elevate his play to the level of a game's importance.

Remember last season's All-Star Game in which Khabibulin put on one of that showcase's most notable performances?

How about when the International Ice Hockey Federation named him the best goalie in the Olympics? Or last season's 3-0 victory over the red-hot Coyotes in Khabibulin's first game in Phoenix since it traded him to Tampa Bay?

The point is, when Khabibulin is in the middle of a drama, good things usually happen. And there are few better dramas than a playoff race.

If the Lightning is in it, the belief is Khabibulin will rise to the challenge and lift the team to the postseason for the first time in seven seasons.

"Nik is clearly one of the best big-game goaltenders," general manager Jay Feaster said. "There is no doubt in my mind when he plays for a prize, he elevates it even more. If we're in the position to make the playoffs, we like our chances with a guy like Nik."

"If you're riding a hot goaltender, it brings a lot more momentum and confidence," center Tim Taylor said. "Anything can happen if a team has confidence, and that's what he brings to us; that confidence we can win every night."

The key is keeping Khabibulin interested. Even he admitted he lost his edge last season as it became obvious the players would be going home in April.

"I think when the games mean less, it's harder to keep your focus and harder to play these games," Khabibulin said Sunday at the Ice Sports Forum. "It's not an excuse or anything. It's just the way it is."

It wasn't like he fell off a cliff. Khabibulin tied for fifth in the league with a .920 save percentage and tied for second with a team-record seven shutouts. But he was inconsistent. There were more soft goals.

He did not duck responsibility.

"When the games mean less, we're all professionals and you have to do your best," hesaid.

But Khabibulin played 70 NHL games last season and clearly felt the mental and physical strain after six emotional and grueling games at the Olympics as Russia won the bronze.

"It was pretty tiring," he said. "It was a lot of games. A lot of hockey. But at the same time, there is nothing you could do about it. You have to deal with it the best you can. You can't really use it as an excuse."

It would have been easier for everyone to keep their intensity had the Lightning not missed the opportunities Khabibulin provided. He carried the team up to February's Olympic break with a save percentage that topped out at a league-best .931.

The Lightning averaged 1.9 goals and lost 15 one-goal games during that span. In seven of those games, it scored one goal or no goals. Still, Tampa Bay was on the outer fringe of the playoff race as late as March22.

Imagine if the Lightning could have mustered the firepower it did after the Olympic break, when it averaged 2.8 goals.

Imagine that because Khabibulin, 29, has an .813 winning percentage (129-27-7) when his teams score three or more goals.

"We clearly need Nik to be what we know he is. And in our opinion, ... he is the best goaltender in the National Hockey League," Feaster said. "One thing we recognize is that we want Nik to recognize how close we are and that the guys are all hungry to be a playoff team."

This is what you get when Khabibulin is hungry:

He became just the fourth goaltender in 14 seasons to pitch a shutout period at the All-Star Game, making 20 stops in the third as the World team scored five times to steal an 8-5 victory. A voting glitch denied Khabibulin the MVP award.

Khabibulin played a tournament-high 419 minutes, 12 seconds at the Olympics with a .930 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average.

His 33-save shutout of the Coyotes in January came against a team that had won four of five and lost just three times at home.

"A lot of it is adrenaline," Khabibulin said. "When you play big games, you're pumped and you just want to go out there and absolutely stop everything. Sometimes, it seems like I'm seeing the puck better, reading the game better, reading the plays better. It feels a little different than the last few games we played last season."

Khabibulin said the playoffs can happen.

"I believe so," he said. "We're a year older, and we got some good experience playing so many close games. I really believe it's going to help us. But we have to be a team. Everybody has to chip in when they can."

The best time for Khabibulin would be, oh, around early April.

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