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Khabibulin says Hawks developed ‘swagger’ since first time with team

Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks

Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks

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Friday

ISLANDERS
AT BLACKHAWKS
The facts: 7 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Updated: October 10, 2013 8:44PM



Nikolai Khabibulin remembers what it was like in the dark ages — the sounds of skates scraping ice echoing through a mostly empty United Center, the drudgery of endless losing seasons, the early summers. But he also got a taste of what it was going to be like in the Blackhawks’ golden age — the buzz brought by two young superstars, the thrilling run to the 2009 Western Conference final after five consecutive lost seasons, the reawakening of a dormant hockey town.

“I got to taste it a little bit at the beginning,” Khabibulin said. “It’s that, but more, now.”

It only took a few hours for Khabibulin — who manned the Hawks’ net for four seasons from 2005 to ’09 — to re-sign with the team this summer, getting a call and agreeing to a deal on the first day of free agency.

With Ray Emery having signed with the Philadelphia Flyers to pursue a No. 1 goaltender job, Khabibulin was a logical fit for the Hawks — a cagey veteran who could spot Corey Crawford and push him the way Emery did last season. For Khabibulin, it was an easy call, too. He had played for coach Joel Quenneville, he knew many of the veterans, he knew the system and he knew the city.

And he knew he wanted to experience what the franchise had become since he left for Edmonton after the 2008-09 season.

He noticed the difference on his very first day of training camp.

“There’s more confidence in the room,” he said. “Whether it’s the guys that have been here or the guys from the minors, it seems like there’s a swagger. It’s explainable — you win two Stanley Cups in four years, it makes you that way. When I was here last, we just started going that way and they just took off after that. It’s a really positive atmosphere, just a pleasure to be here.”

The decision to come to Chicago came with a price. Khabibulin is a clear backup here, with little chance of unseating Crawford, who’s coming off a sensational season that ended with him backstopping a Stanley Cup run. Even at age 40, Khabibulin still sees himself as an every-game guy. Patrick Kane said he was in the best shape of any 40-year-old he’s ever seen, to which Khabibulin joked, “If he’s seen only one, then it makes sense.”

But just two seasons ago, he was still the Oilers’ No. 1, until Devan Dubnyk slowly took the job away. After starting a combined 86 games from 2010-12, Khabibulin made 11 starts in the shortened season last year.

That’s not an easy transition to make for a goalie with 795 career regular-season games under his belt. But he’s taking a different mentality to Chicago than he had in Edmonton, knowing full well how entrenched Crawford is.

“I don’t think it’s something that made me happy the last couple of years,” Khabibulin said. “But I knew coming in here what I was getting into. The wait can be hard, and it’s an adjustment for sure. But I’m trying to prepare every game as if I’m playing. When I do that, it’s a little bit easier.”

Khabibulin finally will make his season debut Friday night against the New York Islanders, thanks to a quirky schedule that saw the Hawks play two games in nine nights. He surely will get more regular playing time now that the Hawks hit the meat of their schedule, with 17 back-to-back sets on the slate, and the veteran said he’s “ready whenever they need me.”

“We’re happy to get him playing here,” Quenneville said. “He’s going to be a very important part of our team.”

No matter how big a part he is, Khabibulin is just happy to be back, and to see just how far his old teammates have come.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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