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To Build a Wall

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has grown in stature by helping the Lightning reach the playoffs. And his reputation as the Bulin Wall will grow if he beats the Caps for his first playoff series win.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2003


TAMPA -- There was a time, not so long ago, in fact, that Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin needed his stick to reach up and touch the crossbar of the net.

Yeah, yeah, Khabibulin is 6 feet 1 and towers above the 4-foot crossbar. But the image fits perfectly with Khabibulin's description of what it was like to go through a 0-6-3 streak with an .866 save percentage.

"I felt pretty small in net," he said.

Look at Khabibulin now. Rather, look at the Bulin Wall now.

"I feel all right," he said this week. "A little bit bigger."

Don't kid yourself. Khabibulin was huge for Tampa Bay down the stretch. An argument can be made for him being the team's most valuable player.

As the Lightning put together a 14-4-8 kick to end the regular season, Khabibulin was 12-1-4 with a 16-game unbeaten streak that tied Dallas' Marty Turco for the season's longest and included a 1.23 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.

It is just the kind of juice the third-seeded Lightning needs tonight when it opens its best-of-seven East quarterfinal series against the No. 6 Capitals at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Not only because Washington has players such as Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang ready to take their best shots, but because it has a Godzilla, Olaf Kolzig, in net.

"The goalie that plays better always helps his team," Khabibulin said. "I don't think it's going to be any different, no matter if it's us or Washington or somebody else."

In a sense, though, it also is time for Khabibulin to help himself.

Any discussion of Khabibulin's career invariably rehashes that he has not won a playoff series, failing in four tries from 1996-99; once with Winnipeg and three times with the Coyotes after the relocation to Phoenix.

Khabibulin, 30, said winning a series has its place.

"I would definitely like to win a series and win a Stanley Cup eventually," he said. "But as far as the media talking about not winning a series, I don't pay much attention to that. It's still a team sport."

Lightning coach John Tortorella and center Tim Taylor said it is unfair to mark Khabibulin's career with such a blotch. Both have seen him play in the postseason, Tortorella as a Coyotes assistant from 1997-99, Taylor as a member of the 1996 Red Wings.

"Everybody said we were going to roll over them," Taylor said of the series in which top-seeded Detroit played No. 8 Winnipeg. "He took us to six games. He dominated. (Keith) Tkachuk took so many penalties that series trying to hit us, and Nik stood there on the power play and held us in check."

In a 3-1 victory in Game 5, Khabibulin stopped 51 of 52 shots.

"He's hard to watch when he's playing against you," Taylor said. "He just stoned us."

Khabibulin has lost two Game 7s, 3-0 in 1997 to the Mighty Ducks and 1-0 in 1999 to the Blues. St. Louis won in overtime on Pierre Turgeon's tip-in.

"For us to even get to a Game 7, Nik was phenomenal," Tortorella said. "It's a level people have not seen him play, so there is another level for him. A lot of people are talking about Nik. 'He hasn't won anything. he hasn't done it in the playoffs.' That's just another challenge for Nik Khabibulin."

Like the challenge of breaking out of his slump. From Jan. 11 to Feb. 11, Khabibulin did not win. On Feb. 14, he and Tortorella had a talk.

"I told him, 'Forget about what you have been doing. What can you do to get us into the playoffs?"' Tortorella said. "He answered that challenge."

"He told me to concentrate on what's ahead," Khabibulin said. "I tried to do that."

In his next start, Feb. 15 against Boston, Khabibulin allowed a bad third-period goal that tied the score at 2.

"I said, 'Here we go again,"' Khabibulin said. "But the guys stepped up and scored three goals in the second half of the period. It definitely gave confidence to the team and gave me confidence, too. Obviously, I'm going to make mistakes, but we can win games."

Jagr said Khabibulin, who had a team-record 30 victories, has been so good, he compared him with former Sabres and Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek.

"When Hasek was in the net, Buffalo didn't have to worry about much," Jagr said. "They feel the same way about Khabibulin. They feel he can stop any shot. They don't necessarily have to play structured defense to not give up any chances. They don't have to be that careful. A three-on-two or a two-on-one is not necessarily a goal."

Khabibulin said he likes this Lightning team better than the playoff teams in Winnipeg and Phoenix. He said Tampa Bay works hard and is "hungrier."

As for Khabibulin, he said, "You never know what's going to happen, but confidence-wise, I feel pretty good."

Big.

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