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Bulin Wall tall enough to keep critics at bay

Nikolai Khabibulin's struggles for respect should be over.

By TOM JONES
Published June 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

TAMPA - Few thought he was capable of this kind of performance.

Too mentally weak, said his critics. Too spacey. Too little like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.

Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, though, proved his critics wrong. The Lightning won a Stanley Cup with the goalie everyone claimed was good but not nearly good enough to win a Stanley Cup.

Three months ago it appeared this would be his last season with the Lightning. Because of his postseason, though, he likely will be back ... to defend a Cup.

After 16 victories in the past two months, put his name alongside the greats: Brodeur, Roy, Grant Fuhr, Billy Smith. Put his name among the clutch goalies who shine most when the pressure is the greatest. Put his name on the Stanley Cup.

"It feels good to work so hard and get this," Khabibulin said. "It hasn't digested yet."

The date was March 5, 2001. That's when the Lightning pulled the trigger on the deal that sent Mike Johnson and Paul Mara and a couple of picks to Phoenix for the enigmatic Khabibulin. At the time Khabibulin was a holdout, having sat out more than a year in a contract dispute.

He was a risk.

He had the reputation of being a top-notch regular-season goalie, but he had never won a playoff series in four tries in Phoenix.

The risk, though, was minimized in Tampa because, after all, the Lightning didn't have a goalie. Daren Puppa's back broke down too many times. Dan Cloutier and Kevin Weekes couldn't live up to their potential. "When I came here three years ago, I don't know if anyone thought we could win a Stanley Cup," Khabibulin said. "But the most important thing was the core stayed together."

Oddly, though, Khabibulin was nearly cut out of the core.

Though he broke his playoff jinx by beating the Capitals in last season's first round, the nagging questions followed. But backup John Grahame couldn't earn the job, so Khabibulin, almost by default, was chosen to lead the Lightning into the postseason. He had three shutouts in the first-round series against the Islanders. He picked up another in the second-round sweep of the Canadiens. And he went a cool 7-0 in games after Lightning losses. In those seven games he allowed a total of seven goals.

With Lightning backs pressed against the wall in the final and down three games to two, Khabibulin was at his best. He withstood a heart-stopping double-overtime and made 33 saves to win Game 6. In Monday's Game 7, with his team and an arena full of nervous fans, he calmly shut the door in the final 10 minutes.

"I'm not going to say I wasn't nervous (in the third period)," Khabibulin said. "It's hard not to be. But I tried to stay calm."

When the clocked reached zeros, Khabibulin jumped into the air. "The highest I've ever jumped in my goalie's gear," he said.

And he had answered all questions that have hounded him throughout his career about performing in the playoffs.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:00:38]

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