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Khabibulin reflects on decade since Lightning Cup win

CHICAGO — Nikolai Khabibulin doesn't go out of his way to watch replays of his 2003-04 Stanley Cup run with the Lightning.

But if he is sitting at home watching the NHL Network and the highlights come on "and I have nothing to do," Khabibulin will watch and remember "it was a lot of fun."

On June 7 it will be 10 years since Tampa Bay won with Khabibulin in net living up to his nickname, the "Bulin Wall."

"It feels like it hasn't been that long," he said. "When I think about it, it makes me feel worse because time flies so fast."

Khabibulin, 40, was sweat-soaked as he spoke at his locker after Saturday's morning skate. The Blackhawks backup goalie didn't play that night against the Lightning. But in the hall outside the United Center dressing rooms, he greeted with smiles and handshakes former teammates Marty St. Louis, the last remaining player from the Cup team, and Chris Dingman, now a Sun Sports broadcaster.

They didn't talk about the past. They chit-chatted, wished each other well. It was enough to keep strong the bonds forged in a championship season.

"Those are some of the best years of my career, maybe the best," said Khabibulin, who was with the Lightning from 2001-04. "A lot of it associates with winning the Cup. But it's also when you're 28 to 32 or so, it's the prime of your career, so I probably felt the best those years."

Khabibulin was 16-7 during those playoffs with a 1.71 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and five shutouts. The only reason he was not named playoff MVP was because teammate Brad Richards scored seven winning goals.

"The backbone of our team," St. Louis said of Khabibulin. "Not to take anything away from 'Richie' — Richie had a great playoff — but 'Habby' was a big reason why we were where we were."

From the outside looking in, Khabibulin was a bit of an enigma, quiet and sometimes aloof. But St. Louis called him a "true professional" because of "the way he handled himself and went about his game."

Khabibulin was so competitive, Dingman said, he was kicked out of the players' card games: "He wanted to keep playing. Every time we'd land, 'What are you guys doing, you going to play?' No, we're going to eat dinner. 'Call me when you get back.' "

Seriously, though, "With him back there, it just gave you confidence to make plays," Dingman said. "If you turned it over, you knew he was back there. You knew he would make the save."

Such as his stretching right-leg save at the left post to rob Calgary's Jordan Leopold with five minutes left in Game 7 of the Cup final to preserve the series-clinching 2-1 win. "If he doesn't make that save, it's a whole different ball game," Dingman said.

Khabibulin was Tampa Bay's first real salary cap casualty. The cap, imposed after the 2004-05 lockout, forced a choice between him and St. Louis.

Nine seasons later, Tampa Bay has run through 20 goalies searching for a No. 1. Khabibulin first played with the Blackhawks and then the Oilers for four years each. He is back with Chicago, last season's Cup champion, with a one-year, $1.7 million deal.

"It's kind of year to year to see how it goes," he said. "When I was with the Oilers, I didn't know how it would be after last year. But when, as of last year, the best team in the world calls you and wants you, it's pretty special. It was an easy choice to keep going."

Khabibulin reflects on decade since Lightning Cup win 10/06/13 [Last modified: Monday, October 7, 2013 12:23am]
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