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Khabibulin continues to reverse reputation

The goaltender can no longer be considered a playoff liability.

By TOM JONES
Published April 30, 2004

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MONTREAL - While the English-speaking reporters waited patiently, Montreal coach Claude Julien described in his native French how his team was swept out of the playoffs by the Lightning. What, Claude, was the difference?

On and on he went for nearly a minute until finally he hit a word that everyone in the room understood. Oddly enough, the word was neither French or English. It was Russian.

Khabibulin.

Once upon a time - oh, like a few weeks ago ago - Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin had a reputation of being about as reliable as a '75 Pinto in the playoffs. Start, sputter, stop. Bad goal here, bad goal there and a quick detour off the first exit ramp of the postseason.

Before this season, Khabibulin was 15-18 in the playoffs. He had lost two Game 7s. He was yanked in last year's series against New Jersey. He had won one series in five tries.

In the past three weeks, he has won two. He has gone from a beat-up Pinto to a steady thoroughbred. Well, that's what the Lightning says.

"They always say you've got to ride a hot goalie until the end," Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle said. "That's what we're going to do. He stole some games in the first round. And he definitely came up big the last two games in Montreal. He's our horse right now."

He is what goalies call being "in the zone," or "in the groove." It's what the Lightning calls "in the conference finals."

Khabibulin stopped 27 of 28 shots Thursday. He stopped 102 of 107 in the series.

"I think without him, we're not even in this series," Boyle said. "You know he is going to make the big stop."

The big stop. The small stops. Pretty much every stop.

He has faced 248 shots in this postseason. Only nine have found the net.

Most important, he is 8-1.

"Nik has been our best player," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "He has been our best player, and he is going to have to be our best player if we're going to move on in this thing."

Throughout these playoffs, Khabibulin has been as difficult to solve off the ice as he has been on. Quiet and reserved, he rarely has much to say on the few occasions he has talked to the media. Most days, he ducks reporters by sneaking out a back door. It's not that he is being rude as much as he can't dissect what he's doing other than seeing the puck and stopping the puck.

He really did appear to think of an answer when asked if he has ever played better in his life, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't really think about it. I guess whatever happens, happens."

What has happened is Khabibulin playing his best. After all, he has never carried a team this far.

"Nik Khabibulin has been the backbone of this team," Tortorella said.

Khabibulin just keeps on talking softly and carrying a big goalie's stick.

"I'm just trying to go out and stop shots," Khabibulin said. "I don't think I'm doing anything special."

But 8-1? Nine goals in eight games? That sounds special. In any language.

[Last modified April 30, 2004, 01:05:39]

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