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All eyes focus on Khabibulin

By TOM JONES
Published April 8, 2004

TAMPA - The hot spotlight has been turned on. The magnifying glass has been pulled out. The eyebrows have been raised.

Everyone is waiting now, waiting and wondering how Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin will play in the playoffs.

Supporters are searching for signs that he can take the Lightning further than it has ever gone in the postseason. Cynics are counting the minutes until his first soft goal and ultimate benching.

No Lightning player is more scrutinized than Khabibulin, who has been booed and cheered by fans, complimented and criticized by his coach, credited and blamed for Lightning results. Those who don't believe the Lightning can win a Cup use Khabibulin as the reason. Even those who are dreaming of a Cup are waiting to see Khabibulin.

Whichever side of the fence one is on, there is little dispute about this: The length of the Lightning's playoff run depends on the play of Khabibulin.

"He's ready for it," goaltending coach Jeff Reese said.

We have to take Reese's word for it because Khabibulin isn't talking these days. He turned down a television interview request Tuesday then ducked out before the media was allowed in the locker room Wednesday.

The Lightning, though, is behind the man behind the mask.

"Of course, we have confidence," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "Look at what we've done this season. We can't have any complaints."

Yet there are complaints about Khabibulin, or at least questions, mostly stemming from him being pulled in the season-ending series against New Jersey a year ago. Just a few weeks ago, Lightning coach John Tortorella questioned Khabibulin's play. His season has been up and down, though he finished 28-19-7 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.

"Sometimes, a goalie's play gets overanalyzed," Sarich said. "Everybody has (bad) games every now and then. But when I have a (bad) game, the puck doesn't always end up in the back of our net."

When a goalie has a bad game, fans and the media start calling for his head.

"That goes along with the territory," said Reese, a former NHL goalie. "If you're a high-profile guy and you're making a lot of money, people are going to talk about you. The goaltending has taken some criticism. There's no question. But we ended up with 106 points. That's the way I look at it."

Reese is assigned to Khabibulin these days. He works with the Russian goalie on technique and spends much of the time working on Khabibulin's head.

"One shot at a time, that's what he has to focus in on," Reese said. "All I want him thinking about is (tonight), first shot. That's it. Don't think big picture. Don't think ahead to May or June."

And though Reese won't say it, don't think ahead to possibly losing Tortorella's confidence. That hasn't happened. Yet.

"I think Nik looks good," Tortorella said. "I think his mental frame looks good. I think it's a great opportunity for him, and he is ready to play."

And everyone else is ready to watch.

[Last modified April 8, 2004, 01:35:43]

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