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NHL names Khabibulin March's best

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 2, 2003

There are many things on Nikolai Khabibulin's "to do" list. It's a good bet being named NHL player of the month is not one of them.

But that honor fell to the Lightning goaltender Tuesday, when he became the first Tampa Bay player so honored.

"That is secondary, for sure, and he would tell you that," Tampa Bay goaltenders coach Jeff Reese said. "His No. 1 goal was to get this team to the playoffs. Now his goal is to try to win the division."

The Lightning could not have earned its first playoff berth since 1996 without Khabibulin, who is on a personal- and team-record 15-game unbeaten streak (11-0-4) and was 7-0-3 in March with a 1.27 goals-against average, a .953 save percentage and a shutout.

Also considered for the award was Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy (9-1-2, 1.36 goals-against average), Colorado's Peter Forsberg (7 goals, 17 assists, plus-19 in 15 games), Atlanta's Dany Heatley (11 and 13 in 17 games), Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi (12 and 11 in 16 games) and Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk (4, 19 and plus-10 in 16 games).

But it was Khabibulin, 30, also named player of the week for the first week of March, who most helped lift his team.

"That's quite an honor, boy," Reese said. "He certainly has earned it."

Khabibulin's turnaround has been startling. Before his unbeaten streak, Khabibulin went through a nine-game winless streak (0-6-3) with an .866 save percentage. In his past 15 games, his save percentage is .954.

"The biggest thing is his confidence," Reese said. "He just had to put together a couple of good (games), and he got on a roll." He's really battled back and found his game. He's taken it to another level from last year."

Khabibulin could not be reached for comment on a team day off but said last week, "Once you hit one goal, you want to progress and get to that other goal. We do have another goal right now, and that's to get first place in the division. Once we do that, the playoffs will start, so we will have plenty of goals to accomplish."

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