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Lightning

Spark for slumping goalie

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2003


TAMPA -- You watched, not sure of what you were hoping to see. A sign, perhaps. An indication of some sort.

Any clue that might indicate Nikolai Khabibulin was playing like so many yesterdays and, thus, the Lightning might survive a few extra tomorrows.

This is the purgatory Tampa Bay has stumbled upon. For once, the youngsters seem capable of a playoff run. And, for now, the goaltender seems uncertain of how to lead them there.

The Lightning was built around Khabibulin. Constructed with the idea this goaltender could carry an emerging roster beyond its means.

Tampa Bay is 28 games and about 60 days from what may be its first postseason appearance in seven seasons.

Yet, with the playoffs beckoning, Khabibulin is cast as the Lightning's greatest concern.

"He is," coach John Tortorella said, "the biggest piece to our puzzle."

Maybe, this morning, there is reason to believe. Perhaps, today, there are signs of progress. The Lightning lost 3-2 in overtime to Toronto Thursday night, but Khabibulin played his best game in quite some time.

You could point out it was his seventh consecutive start without a victory and that would be true. You could argue he began the third period with a 2-1 lead and was unable to protect it.

But you might also have noticed a more aggressive approach. A goalie with a shade more confidence than doubt.

"What Nik needs is a good solid outing to make him feel better about himself. And we'll just build slowly that way," Tortorella said. "We know he's going to get back to that level. You can't keep him down much longer. "He knows the situation we're in. The greatest thing about Nik is he wants to be the guy who brings this team to where it's trying to get to."

Frankly, it's been a while since Khabibulin has been that guy. He's had moments, but has been several adjectives shy of superb for quite some time.

A year ago, Khabibulin carried a struggling team through the first half of the season. He was brilliant most nights and wonderful the rest. He was the star of the All-Star Game and a hero in the Olympics.

Eventually, he seemed to wear down. A victim, it was assumed, of a post-Olympic letdown.

That letdown has yet to let up.

Khabibulin has been pulled this season from a half-dozen games and, for at least the first game after the All-Star break this week, found himself sitting behind John Grahame.

There is no reasonable explanation for what has looked like a steady decline. No easy answer at which to point.

Khabibulin is not tired and he is not hurt. His techniques are fine and, at 30, he should be reaching the peak of his career.

A year ago, you might have argued he was among the best goaltenders in the world. Earlier this week, you were not convinced he was the best on his team.

"We all try to come up with our own theories and I don't know if any one is more or less valid than any other," general manager Jay Feaster said. "Obviously none of us know precisely what it is or we would have fixed it."

Jeff Reese has his own theory. The Lightning assistant coach in charge of goaltenders, Reese has studied Khabibulin's videotapes and found little to correct. The talent, Reese insists, is still there.

It's simply become a question of letting Khabibulin's instincts take over. He has worked so hard to change his fortune, he's become unfamiliar to himself.

"More than anything else," Reese said, "he needs to put the fun back in the game."

This is easier said than done. It is a fierceness of pride that helped make Khabibulin one of the game's greats. To ignore one's pride in a time of difficulty can be a tricky proposition.

This was the fine line Tortorella had to walk earlier this week. The Lightning desperately needed points in its game against Washington and Grahame had been the more dependable goaltender.

So, to go for the victory, Tortorella risked harming Khabibulin's psyche. As it turned out, the Lightning was run over by Washington and Tortorella was able to switch back to Khabibulin Thursday.

The hope now is Khabibulin can build off the Toronto game. While it ended with disappointment, it was far from a disaster.

Certainly, there are other concerns. Should a defenseman be lost to injury, the Lightning might as well begin plans for next season. Should some of the younger players freeze under pressure, the playoffs are as good as gone.

But no one is more critical than Khabibulin. The Lightning once envisioned the day it could turn its playoff fortunes over to the goaltender. That day has come, but its brought unexpected worries.

"Our biggest battle as a staff has been making the younger players realize what accountability is all about," Tortorella said. "Nik knows that already. He brings that to another level. We almost need to bring him down. Get him feeling good about himself, have some fun and allow his talent to take over."

So what do you say, Nik?

Are we having fun yet?

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