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Khabibulin rebuilds Bulin Wall // Montreal Gazette
By Dave Stubbs.
MONTREAL — At its best, NHL goaltending is a challenging craft.
At its worst? Your defencemen are invisible or they annoyingly block your view. You deal with deflections and bad bounces. Opponents crash your net. A puck that seems the size of a beach ball when you’re hot is the smallest marble in the bag when you’re cold.
And then there’s the life of 16th-season netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, the author — and not — of his Edmonton misfortune who is enjoying a wonderful rebirth this season.
The Russian netminder’s 28-save performance in the Oilers’ 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday was the latest intriguing chapter in a story that began in Edmonton two seasons ago, a mostly bad tale that seems to have found a very good editor.
Khabibulin’s biggest challenge in the first period Tuesday night was staying awake, facing just four Canadiens shots; he saw 13 more in the second period and another dozen before the final siren.
The Habs smudged his Oilers crest with many pucks to the gut, but he also was airtight with a handful of quick-legged pad saves, finally beaten 3:10 from the end on a backhand by Max Pacioretty.
“As a goalie, every game you want to start with long shots. You want to see a few of them before the first scoring chance,” Khabibulin said post-game. “But at the same time, you can’t control that.
“You have to stay focused and you’ve got to somehow get involved in the game, whether it’s having plays go through your head or play the puck a little bit or just talk to the guys. That’s what I tried to do.”
Whatever Khabibulin’s formula, it’s working to near perfection for this surprisingly good Oilers team, the NHL’s doormat the past two seasons that improved to 9-3-2 with Tuesday’s win.
The Bulin Wall, 38, is living up to his nickname, now at 7-0-2 (both losses in shootout) with two shutouts, having come into Tuesday’s game with a gaudy 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.
And he’s being ably seconded by Devan Dubnyk, who is 2-3-0 with strong 2.19 and .930 statistics.
“You can’t really predict how it’s going to go,” Khabibulin said of his sizzling start. “I had no idea what was going to happen. I came into the season with a positive attitude and just tried to work as hard as I could. So far, it’s going pretty well.”
It’s almost enough to make you forget the two very forgettable years that came before.
In mid-November of 2009, just 18 games into a four-year, $18-million contract, Khabibulin pulled the chute with an ailing back and underwent season-ending surgery.
Three months later, he was pulled over by police near his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, clocked in his Ferrari driving 110 km/h in a 70 km/h zone. His sobriety test gauged him to be nearly two times over the state’s legal limit.
Khabibulin was given the minimum 30-day sentence — he could have gotten six months — for charges of driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or more, excessive speeding, and extreme driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol content of .15 or more; he had tested at .164.
He appealed the decision and, with the case hanging over his head like a legal anvil, he set off into his second season with the Oilers.
It was ghastly — he went 10-32-4 on the NHL’s worst club, with a porous average of 3.40 and a screen-door save percentage of .890.
Khabibulin finally dropped his appeal this past July and served 15 days in Arizona’s infamous sun-scorched Tent City jail, a cramped outdoor facility.
The goalie served his final 15 days under house arrest, an electronic monitoring bracelet his bling, then a month later reported to Oilers camp with a new resolve, better health, a different outlook on his life and with the confidence of club management.
Count Edmonton head coach Tom Renney among his fans, if one who wasn’t overjoyed by the support the Oilers gave the goalie Tuesday.
“That’s one of the poorer performances we’ve had in front of him,” Renney said after the win. “We kind of stole one here, but you find ways to win. He certainly is giving us a lot of confidence. Hopefully, we find a way to pay that back.”
Khabibulin has a colourful history, to say the least, since being selected in the ninth round (204th overall) of the 1992 entry draft by the first-time-around Winnipeg Jets.
He debuted with Winnipeg in 1994-95, played two seasons there and three more in Phoenix when the Jets moved south. He sat out the 1999-2000 season over a contract dispute with the Coyotes, playing the year with the International Hockey League’s Long Beach Ice Dogs, then was traded to Tampa Bay in March 2001.
Three years in Tampa and four more in Chicago brought him to Edmonton as a free agent on July 1, 2009.
(Tuesday, he said it’s probably not been since his last year with the Blackhawks in 2008-09 that he’s felt as good as he does now.)
Along the way, Khabibulin earned Olympic gold with the Unified Team in 1992 and bronze for Russia 2002, became the first Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup (2004 with the Lightning) and has played in four all-star games.
At 15 minutes of Tuesday’s game, he crossed the 43,000 NHL career minutes threshold. The Canadiens’ 17th shot, a long slapper by Petteri Nokelainen with 10 seconds left in the second period, was the 21,000th he’s faced in the league.
Not that he was aware of the milestones, only the win column defining him now.
“When you don’t win many games, time doesn’t go as fast,” Khabibulin said, headed for the showers.
“Right now, time flies.”
Funny how it can do that when you turn back the clock.