Nikolai Khabibulin Returns to Chicago: Worst Timing Possible

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IOctober 14, 2009

On Wednesday night, the Edmonton Oilers will skate at the United Center before a Chicago crowd that’s seen two incredible games to start the Blackhawks' home schedule.

Saturday, the Blackhawks beat the first place Colorado Avalanche in the longest shootout in franchise history. Then Monday, the Hawks tied the NHL all-time record for largest deficit ever overcome in beating the Calgary Flames.

The emotion and excitement at the United Center is as high as it’s been in the regular season in years.

Now place those two dramatic victories into the context of the situation in goal for the Hawks. Many fans weren’t thrilled with Cristobal Huet and his $5.6 million salary last year, when he failed to win the No. 1 goalie job in preseason. As this season begins, he’s been consistently vulnerable and was pulled early in the first period on Monday.

Indeed, the reaction from the capacity crowds at the Hawks’ first two home games has been telling. To say it was “mixed” might be generous, especially after Saturday took nine shots to win a shootout. He wasn’t very good in Helsinki, wasn’t good enough in Detroit, and wasn’t good at all against Calgary.

Enter Wednesday night’s opponent. The Oilers are having a nice season and are among the leaders in the Western Conference.

Oh, and their goalie just happens to be Nikolai Khabibulin.

The Bulin Wall will return to the United Center at perhaps the worst time possible for the Blackhawks’ front office and Huet’s ego. Whether or not Huet will even be in the net against Khabibulin is still undetermined, with Antti Niemi becoming a cult hero among Hawks fans, largely for no reason other than he isn’t Huet.

The numbers for both Huet and Khabibulin are average at best, but in the 20,000-vote popularity contest that will take place during player introductions on Wednesday, the odds are strongly in Khabibulin’s favor.

Khabibulin is 2-1-1 with an .890 save percentage and a 3.14 goals against average so far to start the 2009-10 season. Huet, meanwhile, is 1-1-1 with an .831 save percentage and a 3.69 goals against average. Neither of these stat lines is exceptional, but Huet didn’t carry the Hawks to the Western Conference Finals last year.

There will likely be a hero’s welcome for Khabibulin on Wednesday night, and he deserves one because of his time as a Blackhawk. It’s now up to Huet to earn his salary, or lose the starting job for a second consecutive season.