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Khabibulin shines through the rust

In first post-holdout game, Lightning goalie makes 32 saves, tops Florida 4-2.

[AP photo]
New Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin gets a face full of ice after surrendering a goal to Florida's Rob Niedermayer.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001


SUNRISE -- If you listen to Nikolai Khabibulin tell it, he was shaking off rust left and right during Friday night's game against the Panthers.

A little creak here, a little groan there.

But if the oil-can-needing Khabibulin looks anything like the finished version the Lightning hopes to see next season, Tampa Bay might have found a bargain.

In his first NHL game in nearly two years, thanks to a contract dispute with the Coyotes, Khabibulin drew raves as he stopped 32 shots during the Lightning's 4-2 victory in front of an announced 15,937 at National Car Rental Center.

"Welcome to the Khabibulin era down in Florida," Panthers center Len Barrie said. "You're going to see him win games by himself. They are going to be a threat in this division next year just because of him."

"He played unbelievable tonight," Lightning defenseman Stan Neckar said.

The effort, which included 18 first-period saves as Tampa Bay was outshot 19-10 en route to a 34-27 disadvantage, couldn't have come at a better time.

The victory,- with goals by Brad Richards, Matthew Barnaby, Nils Ekman and Ben Clymer, snapped a four-game losing streak and Florida's 12-game unbeaten streak against the Lightning at home (10-0-2).

It also gave Tampa Bay its first season series victory over Florida (3-0-0-2) and its first eight-victory month (8-6-1).

One of the first Lightning players on the ice to congratulate Khabibulin was goaltender Kevin Weekes, who stands to lose much playing time next season if Khabibulin flourishes.

"He played awesome," Weekes said.

Maybe, but Khabibulin said, "I'm still pretty far from where I want to be."

Khabibulin, who hadn't played in the NHL since 1998-99, had his rights traded to Tampa Bay on March 5 and signed the richest contract in team history on March 17, a four-plus-year deal that pays $14.75-million.

It was unclear if he would play this season, but the goaltender requested it. And after some excellent workouts and 18 starts in 19 games by Weekes, including Thursday night's 6-2 loss to the Canadiens, coach John Tortorella agreed.

It didn't hurt that the game was on the road and the team flew out Friday morning. That meant no morning skate and no distractions.

"He'd be alone and able to do his thing and focus on the game," Tortorella said.

Tortorella hoped Khabibulin's first game also would short circuit training-camp pressure and anticipation. It also gave Khabibulin a measuring stick.

"I felt my legs start to get tired in the third period," he said. "But the guys did a great job so I didn't have to face a lot of shots."

In fact, Tampa Bay outshot the Panthers 8-5 in the third and scored twice, including a phantom goal by Clymer with 56 seconds left that made the score 4-1.

The puck never crossed the goal line, but Tampa Bay was awarded a goal because officials ruled Florida's Robert Svehla intentionally dislodged the net with less than two minutes left.

Rob Niedermayer scored in the first period for Florida and Denis Shvidki scored with 25.4 seconds left.

But Pavel Bure must be shaking his head after being stoned from the side of the net in the first period as Tampa Bay killed off a 1:41 five-on-three to preserve a 1-0 lead, which came courtesy of Richards' 21st goal.

So must Dan Boyle, who was stopped in front of the net in the second period by a Khabibulin split.

"Does this game surprise me? Not really," Lightning goaltenders coach Jeff Reese said. "I saw his quickness in practice and the way he moves on down-low coverage."

Tortorella, who said the goalie played "square to the puck and solid," added that with four games left in the season, he isn't sure Khabibulin will play again.

"That's going to be a day-to-day decision," the coach said.

But one that just got a whole lot easier.

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