Rambler's Top100


19 2006 . 
Khabibulin works some holiday magic // Daily Herald

By Tim Sassone
Tis the season to be jolly, and the Blackhawks are these days in big part thanks to the play of their own Saint Nik.

Ever since returning from a broken finger Nov. 17, Nikolai Khabibulin has played like the kind of goaltender the Hawks expected to be getting when they signed the veteran to the richest contract in club history four years, $27 million as a free agent in the summer of 2005.

Khabibulin is 8-3-2 since he returned from the injury and is 7-1-2 in his last 10 starts with a goals-against average a shade above 2 and a save percentage of .926.

If there has been one constant in the streak the Hawks have been on since Denis Savard took over as coach, its the outstanding goaltending Khabibulin has provided.

Hes a competitor, Savard said. He didnt win the Stanley Cup (with Tampa Bay in 2004) for no reason. He was the difference. He just battles and battles and battles.

He makes it look easy, Hawks captain Adrian Aucoin said.

Getting Khabibulin to talk about himself is as difficult as putting a puck by him these days. He acknowledges he is playing well, but all that matters to him is the fact the Hawks have turned their season around and are chasing a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

As long as we win, it doesnt matter, Khabibulin said. I feel pretty decent, and I think I feel a little bit more comfortable and have been communicating better with the defensemen.

Khabibulin has started 10 of the 11 games since Savard began coaching, missing only the Dec. 9 game in Minnesota because of flu symptoms. Savard promised to ride his No. 1 goaltender and isnt going to stop now.

I think its easier when you play more, said Khabibulin, who once started 49 games in a row with the Phoenix Coyotes. Its easier to come out and just worry about playing. You dont really have practices or anything, and that makes it easier.

With Khabibulin playing the way he is, it is allowing his teammates to take more chances offensively, which is all part of the system Savard wants to play. As Savard has said, why have a $7 million goalie if you cant trust him to make the necessary saves?

You know hes there, winger Martin Havlat said. Hes there to the end for us. That gives a team a lot of confidence.

Certainly, Khabibulin has been a vital part of the turnaround, but he is not the only reason the Hawks are above .500 at 14-13-5.

Weve played some good games for him, too, Savard said.

Winger Tuomo Ruutu sees the Hawks playing more desperate hockey since Savard replaced Trent Yawney behind the bench.

All the players recognized after they fired the coach that we were in a situation where we better start playing or otherwise we would know before Christmas that we werent going to make the playoffs, Ruutu said. I think everybody recognized it was our last chance. 

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