Nikolai Khabibulin a Big Reason for Chicago Blackhawks' Hot Start

Kevin MurphyContributor INovember 11, 2008

The Chicago Blackhawks are off to their best start since the 2001-02 season.

They currently sit at 7-3-3 after 13 games, have yet to lose a home game in regulation, and are 6-1-2 since Joel Quenneville took over as head coach following the firing of Dennis Savard.

That coaching change may have helped quite a bit—and of course, the Blackhawks' special teams are vastly improved from last season. However, if you're looking for a hero, you need look no further than goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

Since being signed to the Blackhawks three years ago, Khabibulin has been mediocre at best. Coming into this season, he's compiled an approximate 2.95 goals-against average through 160 games played in a Blackhawks uniform. He has a 65-72-17 record in that time—not exactly the results that Chicago expected from a goalie that led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup two years prior.

Blackhawks fans were hopeful coming into this season, after having their first winning season in five years last year, finishing only one or two wins away from being a playoff team.

However, most of that hope was due to the play of their young talents Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, not to mention the signings of defenseman Brian Campbell and netminder Cristobal Huet. No one expected much from an aging Khabibulin—in fact, it was Huet who was expected to get the bulk of the playing time.

Not so, as it turns out. Khabibulin and Huet have split playing time, with Khabibulin playing seven games to Huet's six. Khabibulin is 4-1-2 in that span, with a 2.38 GAA. Huet is 3-2-1 with a 2.45 GAA.

Both goaltenders have been good, to be sure, but Khabibulin also has a higher save percentage, and even threw in an assist. He's looking more like the goalie that Chicago signed in 2005 as an All-Star netminder, rather than a washed up also-ran that doesn't have what it takes. Though it's hard to say exactly what the difference is, Khabibulin has already far exceeded expectations this year, as far as Blackhawks fans are concerned.

It's only game 14 for the Hawks and there is a lot of hockey to be played. But this team is playing with a fire that had been lost on the original six squad for the last few years.

Their offensive attack is a great one, but they also have given up less than three goals per game, and their penalty-kill rate is better than every team's but Minnesota's. Why? Well, an upgraded defense helps, but mostly it's been the solid netminding—of Huet, and especially Khabibulin.

If the Blackhawks are to break their streak of five straight seasons without a playoff game, then this strong play from Khabibulin will no doubt have to continue. The last time the Blackhawks made the playoffs was the 2001-02 season—the same season that they last came out of the gates looking this good.

There's still a long season ahead for Blackhawks fans. But things are looking up in the Windy City, and they can thank Nikolai Khabibulin for it.