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Hawks goalie Khabibulin lacks rhythm, confidence

Updated: December 2, 2013 12:51PM

Patrick Sharp called hockey “the ultimate team game” when he defended the poor start by backup goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. And the fact that the Blackhawks have picked up five of a possible six points in the three games Khabibulin has started certainly supports that idea.

But Khabibulin — who has a ghastly 4.73 goals-against average and .818 save percentage and was yanked midway through the Hawks’ 6-5 victory Tuesday over the Ottawa Senators — knows his performance in his last two starts was unacceptable and that his team earned three of four points despite him, not because of him.

“If I get scored on four, five, six times a game, I’m not happy,” Khabibulin said. “It doesn’t matter what happens in front of me; I’m still trying to find things that I can do better so I don’t get scored on that many [times]. It’s nice of the guys to stick up for me and everything, but it’s pretty simple: I have to be better.”

Khabibulin fared well enough in his first start, making 17 saves in a ho-hum 3-2 victory Oct. 11 over the New York Islanders. His rough outing at Tampa Bay two weeks later — a 6-5 overtime loss — was then easy to write off as a product of rust.

The game against the Senators, in which he gave up four goals on 22 shots, was far more troubling. And it puts coach Joel Quenneville in a Catch-22 situation. Khabibulin needs to play more regularly to get into a rhythm and build up the confidence that has made him so successful over his 18-season career. But Quenneville can’t put Khabibulin back in until he shows that rhythm and confidence.

With three consecutive weekends of back-to-back sets with travel (away on Saturday, home on Sunday) starting Saturday in Winnipeg, Khabibulin typically would get a start each time. But Quenneville hinted Thursday that Corey Crawford could start both nights, at least this weekend.

In other words, Khabibulin likely won’t play again until he builds back his own confidence — as well as the coaching staff’s confidence in him.

“We’ll get to see him in practice, and he’ll show us when he’s ready ready,” Quenneville said. “It’s a process to get him back to where it needs to be.”

Khabibulin, 40, has been around long enough to realize his predicament.

“It’s not about me; it’s got to be what’s best for the team,” he said. “The coach cannot just put me in and say, ‘Hey, go find a rhythm.’ We still have to win games. So whatever it is, if I don’t get to play much, I’ll try to get better in practices.”

Antti Raanta, the highly touted Finnish goalie whom the Hawks signed last spring, has been faring well in Rockford as he adjusts to the North American rink, posting a 5-1 record, a 2.40 GAA and a .926 save percentage. But Quenneville brushed aside any thought of making a change behind Crawford, saying, “We want to get Khabibulin going and keep him playing.”

Khabibulin said he and new goaltending coach Steve Weeks found some minor things on video that can be corrected, but, more than anything, he just needs to fight through it — to see more shots and make more saves.

After all, Tuesday wasn’t the first time Khabibulin was pulled from a game. Two years ago with the Edmonton Oilers, it happened four times. So he knows he can rebound.

As Quenneville put it, every player goes through tough stretches; it’s simply magnified for goalies.

“Two games don’t make a season,” Khabibulin said. “But I wanted to play better. . . . What happened happened. I have to put it aside and try to get better next game.”

He’ll get that chance eventually. It just might be awhile.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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