After a two-game glimpse of what he can do in a Lightning uniform, the goalie is ready to bring his skills to another level.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2001
BRANDON -- If you want to understand what shaped the perspective of Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, you have to go back 16 years to his home in Sverdlovsk in central Russia.
Back to a time when the games were mostly for fun, but the lessons were still poignant.
Khabibulin said his youth-league team was filled with underachievers. Because no one expected much from the 12-year-olds, every victory was sweet.
"I always liked to play for underdogs," Khabibulin said last week, smiling at the memory.
"Nobody expects you to do a lot of damage, and if you do, you really feel pretty good about yourself and your teammates. You appreciate the wins more when they come harder."
Consider Khabibulin and the Lightning soul mates.
Underdogs? No NHL team has struggled harder for victories than Tampa Bay, which has lost at least 50 games (including overtime losses) in a never-before-done four seasons running. The Lightning wants to break the cycle of losing. Khabibulin wants to prove he still has the skills that produced a 2.13 goals-against average with eight shutouts and a .923 save percentage in 1998-99, the last season he played for the Coyotes. Consider it a match made in heaven or, at least, out of necessity.
"It's not going to be all that easy," said Khabibulin, acquired in March after sitting out almost two seasons because of a contract dispute with Phoenix. "I'm not going to step right out there and be the best goalie in the league. That's very hard, but I'm going to keep working. I want to be the best. I'm going to work hard to achieve that."
Of the Lightning, he said, "I'm expecting us to fight for a playoff spot. Otherwise why are you playing? If you expect to be fourth in your division, why do you even start playing?"
How do you reclaim a career?
For Khabibulin, it starts by reporting Tuesday to training camp at the Ice Sports Forum in the best shape of his career. Coach John Tortorella said the 28-year-old has just 9 percent body fat, and his stomach muscles are popping.
Khabibulin could not have sent a better signal to Tortorella, a stickler for fitness and who, as a Coyotes assistant, knew of the goaltender's questionable training habits.
"He was very poorly conditioned in Phoenix," Tortorella said. "He always felt he could just rely on his talent."
Khabibulin smoked and drank lots of coffee.
"I like coffee," he said. "Most Europeans do."
The problem was, Khabibulin was slamming it between periods, hoping the caffeine buzz would, as he said wryly, "keep me awake."
Coffee is a diuretic. So between that and the sweat Khabibulin lost during games, he kept getting dehydrated. It was so bad during one game against the Maple Leafs, Khabibulin needed IVs to restore his fluids and was hospitalized overnight.
"I was white as the walls in Maple Leaf Gardens," he said.
Khabibulin said he quit smoking, and though he hasn't given up coffee, his game-day beverages are water and sports drinks.
Tortorella isn't surprised by the changes.
"He has an inner fire that he is going to show people," he said. "He wants to go out there ready."
He will need every advantage. Though the Lightning's expectations are modest -- playing meaningful games in March is the company line -- there will be pressure. Tampa Bay gave Khabibulin the richest contract in team history: three-plus years at $14.75-million plus incentives and an option year that could boost the total to $22.25-million.
It expects results and a tandem with backup Kevin Weekes that goaltenders coach Jeff Reese said could develop into "the best 1-2 punch in the league."
If Khabibulin, a two-time All-Star, is worried his skills have eroded, he doesn't let on. In fact, he said any concerns are overblown.
The way he calculates it, his layoff was one year, not two, because he played 33 games for Long Beach in 1999-2000 and was named the IHL's co-MVP.
If the Lightning, who traded Mike Johnson, Paul Mara, Ruslan Zainullin and a draft pick for Khabibulin, had any worries, they were quickly dispelled. Though not in game shape, the goalie earned a spectacular 4-2 victory over the Panthers in last season's debut and played well in a 4-3 loss to the Rangers, though the winning goal was soft.
The quick glove and post-to-post anticipation were evident. But most impressive to Reese was Khabibulin's command of the angles.
"He's always in position and always square to the puck," said Reese, who added that with Khabibulin's 6-foot-1 frame filling the goal, "you have to make a pretty good shot to beat him."
The biggest knock against Khabibulin: He has not won a playoff series in four tries despite a .916 save percentage.
Tortorella scoffed. He was in Phoenix in 1998-99 when Khabibulin lost a heartbreaking series to the Blues, including a 1-0 overtime loss in Game 7.
"He was the main reason we won a few games," Tortorella said. "We had no right to be there."
"At the time he was one of the best goalies in the league; maybe the best," said Tampa Bay forward Juha Ylonen, Khabibulin's teammate in Phoenix. "I don't think the (Lightning) guys realize how good he can be if he's on top of his game."
That's just what the underdogs want to hear.
WHEN: Players report Tuesday for two days of fitness training. Practices begin Thursday.
WHERE: Ice Sports Forum, Brandon. Take the Selmon Expressway to the Faulkenberg Road exit near Brandon. Turn left on Faulkenberg and follow through the intersection at Adamo Drive. Turn right on the second street (Elizabeth) after Adamo.
PRACTICE SCHEDULE: 10 a.m. daily beginning Thursday through Sept. 25 except Sept. 20 (off day), Sept. 22 (game in Houston) and Sept. 23 (noon). Schedule subject to change.
ADMISSION: Practices are free and open to the public. A Sept. 26 scrimmage at the Ice Palace is open only to season-ticket holders.
PRESEASON SCHEDULE: Saturday vs. Carolina at TECO Arena, Estero, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday vs. Carolina at Ice Palace, 6 p.m.; Sept. 18 vs. Ottawa, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, 6 p.m.; Sept. 19 vs. Columbus at Syracuse, N.Y., 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 22 vs. Washington at Houston, 8:30 p.m.; Sept. 28 vs. Florida at Ice Palace, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 29 at Florida, 7:30 p.m.
AUTOGRAPH TIPS: Players often sign after practices. Be prepared with pen and paper or photo. Players will sign after Sept. 26 scrimmage.
INFORMATION: Call (813) 301-6500.