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Game's most important player also its best

Published June 1, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Khabibulin and Corey Stillman stave off the attempt of Calgary's Jarome Iginla.
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Click on each score for the main story from each game
(Lightning wins series 4-3)
Tuesday [5/25]: Calgary 4, Tampa Bay 1
Thursday [5/27]: Tampa Bay 4, Calgary 1
Saturday [5/29]: Calgary 3, Tampa Bay 0
Monday [5/31]: Tampa Bay 1, Calgary 0

CALGARY - On nights such as this, you are free to believe again.

On nights when Nikolai Khabibulin stops Jarome Iginla from the left, and then again from the right. On nights when Ville Nieminen is alone in front of the net, and the puck finds nothing but Khabibulin's pads.

On nights when Khabibulin is the best player on the ice, the idea of tropical drinks flowing from Lord Stanley's Cup does not seem so absurd.

Once again, the Lightning has new life in this series because, once again, Khabibulin refused to surrender a lead.

This is how Tampa Bay got this far, and it is the only way the Lightning will go any further. Wearing Calgary down, one Nik at a time.

"He never ceases to amaze us," defenseman Brad Lukowich said.

Six times the Lightning has lost this postseason, and six times followed with a victory. The common thread? Khabibulin's excellence. He has a 0.83 goals-against average and has stopped 149 of 154 shots following a loss.

These are the ways reputations are forged. This is the time of the season when Khabibulin can make you forget all his maddening inconsistencies.

The goaltender who could not win a playoff series has won three in a row. The guy who could not win a Game 7 beat Philadelphia 2-1.

The underachiever who was benched during the last postseason is creeping closer to carrying a team to the Stanley Cup.

"Nik was outstanding tonight," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "To compete and stay here in the series, your goaltender has to be the best player."

That was the question of the series. The question, really, of the season.

Could Khabibulin be Tampa Bay's best player?

If so, nothing else is as important.

Not Ruslan Fedotenko's swollen cheek, nor Iginla's wicked slap shot. Not Brad Richards' string of winners, nor Nieminen's cheap shot. Not even Miikka Kiprusoff's shutout in Game 3.

"Somebody asked me about Kiprusoff the other day," forward Tim Taylor said. "All I know is Nik has outdueled everyone he's come across."

That was true in the Islanders series. Against Montreal and Philadelphia too. But, frankly, it was not so clear these last few games.

Oh, it was not Khabibulin's fault the Lightning was flirting with doom and tempting gloom going into Game 4.

He was not the reason the Stanley Cup is halfway to Canada for the first time in 11 years. Before Monday, Khabibulin did nothing to alter the balance of power in this series, one way or the other.

And that, I suppose, was the heart of the matter.

The only way the Lightning continues winning is if Khabibulin continues to be the team's best player. Tortorella has said it, again and again.

Khabibulin did not cost the Lightning Games 1 and 3 against the Flames, but he did not steal those games either. Lately he had been, for the most part, a nonfactor. And that was threatening to be the postscript of this series.

Playoff hockey, we have been told, is a different sort of game. The hits are more fierce, the battles are more intense. Defenses are the focus, opportunities are not to be wasted. And, yes, goaltending is the key.

Khabibulin, himself, proved that. The Lightning would not be in the Stanley Cup final had he not been better than Robert Esche in the Flyers series.

The Lightning can win if Richards struggles. It can survive an off night from Martin St. Louis or Vinny Lecavalier. Hope is not lost if Fedotenko or Pavel Kubina are out of the lineup.

But the Lightning is destined to struggle if Khabibulin is not the best goaltender on the ice from night to night.

"When he is our best player," Lukowich said, "we shouldn't lose."

Lately, he has had brilliant moments, but not brilliant nights. Not from the first period to the third.

Not the way he did in Game 1 against the Islanders. Not the way he did repeatedly in the Montreal series.

There was a time when Khabibulin was on his way to a postseason no one had ever seen. Through Montreal and New York, his GAA was a smidgen under 1.00. Against Philadelphia and Calgary, it has been 2.33.

He had four shutouts in his first six games. Before Monday, he had none in the next 13.

"The numbers aren't as good but, and this is no disrespect to Montreal or the Islanders, but the teams are getting better every series," goalie coach Jeff Reese said. "Right now, the numbers aren't so important. It's being one better than the other guy. That's his goal.

"It doesn't matter if it's 7-6 or 1-0, you want to find a way to beat the other guy. That's where his mind-set is."

The past two months, Khabibulin has earned as much praise as any player in a uniform. He might have been as important as any two skaters combined.

Lightning players recognize he is the reason they are here today.

And they know he will determine if they go much beyond tomorrow.

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 01:02:05]

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