Blackhawks: Nikolai Khabibulin Visits Past Glories vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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Blackhawks: Nikolai Khabibulin Visits Past Glories vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
Nikolai Khabibulin will be in familiar territory when he takes to the crease in Tampa Bay Thursday night.

Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has elected to give Corey Crawford the night off Thursday when his squad visits the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In net instead for the 'Hawks will be Nikolai Khabibulin, a familiar face to both fanbases.

Fans' memories of the 40-year-old veteran likely differ according to the sweater they favor, but Khabibulin has a lot of history with both the 'Hawks and the Lightning. As he nears the end of a long NHL career, this could well be Khabibulin's swan song at the scene of his greatest triumph.

The well-traveled goalie has suited up for five NHL franchises, but none for more than a four-year stretch  at a time as he enters his 18th season in the league. That includes his previous tour of duty with the Blackhawks, as well as stops in Edmonton, Tampa Bay, Phoenix and Winnipeg, which drafted the Russian native in the ninth round back in 1992.

It's been an interesting journey for Khabibulin, to say the least. Khabibulin has had an eventful career, from holding out in the 1999-2000 season when he couldn't come to terms with the Coyotes to a stormy four-year run with Chicago following the 2004 NHL lockout.

It is with the Lightning, however, where Khabibulin experienced his greatest achievements, making two All-Star appearances and helping Tampa Bay to the 2003-04 Stanley Cup. He posted five shutouts in the 2004 playoffs to finish with a 1.71 goals against average and a .933 save percentage in 23 games.

/Getty Images
Khabibulin played four seasons in Tampa Bay, helping the Lightning win the 2004 Stanley Cup.

Following the lockout, Khabibulin signed a four-year, $27 million contract with the Blackhawks, but was mostly a disappointment, leading Chicago to go so far as to put him on waivers before the start of the 2008-09 campaign.

Khabibulin went unclaimed and won back the starting job from Cristobal Huet by the time the 'Hawks made their first playoff appearance in six seasons in 2009. A lower-body injury put an end to his first tenure in Chicago and also ended the Blackhawks' chances in the Western Conference Final.

The injury was an omen for his next stop with the Oilers, where he spent as much time on the trainer's table as in the crease for Edmonton. In four seasons with the Oilers, Khabibulin appeared in just 117 of 294 possible games.

Khabibulin was a surprise acquisition by Blackhawks vice president and general manager Stan Bowman this summer. With Crawford likely to get most of the action in net, Khabibulin enters the final chapter of his career in the role of a veteran backup.

In his first start of the season, Khabibulin stopped 17 of 19 shots in a 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders. It appears that the expectations are for Chicago's oldest player to log 15-20 games in net behind Crawford.

Khabibulin has met the Lightning three times since departing after their Stanley Cup season. He is 2-0-1 in those games with a 1.95 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. His last start against Tampa Bay ended in a shootout loss on March 22, 2012 with Edmonton.

Khabibulin is not the same player he was when he hoisted hockey's greatest trophy nearly 10 years ago, but Chicago isn't expecting that player. The Blackhawks need Khabibulin to just give them a solid effort and keep them in games these days.

Maybe, though, the veteran can still find some magic in the air at Tamp Bay Times Forum. Who knows? We could see yet another raising of the Bulin Wall in goal on Thursday night.

 

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