LIGHTNING 1, WINGS 0: The Tampa Bay goalie makes 30 saves for his 30th shutout.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2003
TAMPA -- Nikolai Khabibulin smiled Tuesday night.
Not just the little grin the Lightning goaltender usually shows the outside world, but a huge, toothy, eye-squinting smile so big it was plainly visible through his mask.
It was an understandable reaction. Khabibulin, pulled in two of his previous three games, made 30 saves in perhaps his best performance of the season during a 1-0 shutout over the Red Wings in front of a screaming 19,941 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"When the season goes like it has this year, I like to have some positive emotions," Khabibulin said.
There were no others to be found in the locker room after the Lightning, on Brad Richards' goal 2:18 into the third period, snapped a three-game losing streak and reclaimed first place in the Southeast Division, one point ahead of the Capitals.
What made the victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions -- 7-1-3 in their previous 11 and 4-0-3 in their previous seven on the road -- even more dramatic was how convincingly the Lightning had lost its past three.
The differences? The discipline Tampa Bay showed in the neutral zone. The willingness to battle along the boards against a physical opponent. And the way the defense, already without injured Jassen Cullimore, responded without Dan Boyle, who sat with a fractured knuckle on his left forefinger sustained Dec. 29 against the Rangers.
Pavel Kubina helped pick up the slack by playing a team-high 26:52. Cory Sarich played 25:14, Stan Neckar 24:56.
Other major contributors to the Lightning's third win in its past four home games against Detroit: Vinny Prospal, who stole Jason Woolley's pass deep in the Detroit zone and fed Richards for the goal. Vinny Lecavalier, who had a game-high seven shots, and veterans Tim Taylor and Dave Andreychuk, whom coach John Tortorella said "led the way as far as the intangibles of this game and on the ice."
"They certainly showed up tonight," Tortorella said of all his players. "They paid the price. They took the hits instead of turning it over. They did the little things and they found a way."
Ultimately, the story was Khabibulin, who earned his second shutout of the season and 30th career (six of those 1-0) by besting Detroit's Curtis Joseph, who also was superb with 31 saves.
"It was just one of those nights," Red Wings coach Dave Lewis said. "You play hard but the goalie was the difference."
Khabibulin has not been the difference in many games this season. His .907 save percentage is .13 below last season, when he was tied for sixth in the league. During the Lightning's losing streak, his save percentage was .846.
"I've been waiting for a good game for a while," Khabibulin said. "This was a great team effort. All 20 guys played hard and did what they had to do. Hopefully we can build on it and I can build on it."
"It was nice to see Nik stand tall for us," Tortorella said. "Nik knows he needs to be the main guy. To play the way he did play against this team, to give us a chance, I'm sure he feels good about that."
If he continues to make saves as he did in the third period, Tampa Bay will be in pretty good shape. Khabibulin stoned Darren McCarty's one-timer from point-blank range 7:59 in. His diving glove stop on Brendan Shanahan with 23.3 seconds left was a game-saver.
"I don't know what happened there," Khabibulin said. "He shot it. I think it hit the side of the net."
"We did everything right," Joseph said. "It just didn't go in. Nik played real well tonight, no mistakes."
Khabibulin was again all business during his locker room interview. Asked what it would take for him to flash another big smile, he said, "If we win the next game with a good team effort."
He almost smiled as he said it.