TAMPA - He hesitated, made a face and shrugged his shoulders. Nikolai Khabibulin believed he was on dangerous ground. Better, then, not to say too much.
The Lightning goalie never has enjoyed explaining how or why he plays well or poorly. And with Khabibulin in a zone reserved for a special few, the discomfort has increased.
He admitted as much after Sunday's 3-1 victory over the Canadiens in Game 2 of the East semifinals at the St. Pete Times Forum.
So after offering, "I'm trying to do the same things" and "I didn't try to do anything different," Khabibulin said he didn't want to jinx anything, especially with a two games to none lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I guess," he said, "it's a little bit of that, too"
Which left it to Khabibulin's teammates to exult over his 26-save effort that included an 11-save second period in which the surging Canadiens outplayed Tampa Bay but could not close a 2-1 deficit.
Vinny Lecavalier's second goal of the game, and fourth of the series, on a breakaway with 2.4 seconds left in the period after a bad giveaway by Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray was the payoff.
But it also spotlighted the importance of Khabibulin holding off Montreal, which outshot Tampa Bay 11-8 in the period.
"He was unbelievable," defenseman Pavel Kubina said. "He made some great saves. He's been great the whole playoffs. It's just amazing to watch him in the net with what he's capable of."
It is an old story in these playoffs but one that keeps getting better.
Khabibulin has stopped 184 of 189 shots for a .974 save percentage in his six victories. He came within one save of his fifth shutout. But after stopping Alex Kovalev's point shot and Saku Koivu's rebound attempt, Koivu's second rebound shot went over the sprawling goaltender.
The power-play goal with 3:20 left in the first cut a two-goal deficit produced by Lecavalier's five-on-three goal 2:35 into the game and Fredrik Modin's goal at 8:33.
Tampa Bay had a 10-0 advantage in shots at that point. But from then through the end of the second, the Lightning got sloppy, especially in the neutral zone, was outshot 19-11 but, thanks to Khabibulin, not outdone.
Khabibulin shined on a Montreal power play with a terrific right-leg save on Michael Ryder's blast from the high slot with 8:49 left in the second. Twenty seconds later, he stopped Yanic Perreault's redirection in front of the net. He stopped Kovalev's breakaway with 5:25 left.
"We knew they were doing some good things in that period. It's just a matter of getting through it without getting scarred," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "Your goaltender has to be good, and Nik was excellent at that point in time."
And Lecavalier provided the back-breaker on a goal that began innocently with Souray's giveaway as he approached Tampa Bay's blue line. Sarich's blind, off-the-boards pass was right on the stick of the center, who broke the other way as soon as Sarich gained the puck.
"I didn't even know Vinny was there," Sarich said. "I knew they had three guys coming up, so I was just getting it out of there."
"When you leave a player like Lecavalier behind the play, it becomes dangerous," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. "We made sure everybody was in front of us, but we got caught flat-footed."
And the Lightning is off and running as it prepares for Game 3 Tuesday at the Bell Centre.
"It was important to win the two games here," Khabibulin said. "But at the same time, we haven't done anything yet. We know going to Montreal, it's going to be a crazy place, and they are going to play a lot better."
"I think they will be a better team," Tortorella said. "I think both teams will be better."