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Khabibulin says improvement will come

Forget trade possibilities. Forget the $6.5-million option on his contract. Right now, Nikolai Khabibulin needs to find his game.

The Lightning goaltender has allowed 19 goals on 103 shots in his past four starts, losing three and with an unacceptable 81.6 save percentage.

Worse, in his past two starts against the Avalanche and Canucks, soft goals late in the third period helped derail regulation victories. And both games were lost in overtime.

"The last four games, it wasn't really that pretty," Khabibulin said. "But I believe it will turn around sooner than later."

The 5-4 overtime loss to Vancouver on Wednesday at GM Place was particularly frustrating.

Tampa Bay produced a gritty effort and took a 4-3 lead on Dave Andreychuk's goal with 9:13 left. But Todd Bertuzzi, with defenseman Jassen Cullimore on his back, got the equalizer with 6:23 left when he rammed the puck past Khabibulin.

Markus Naslund got the winner with 20.5 seconds left in overtime when he tapped in the puck Khabibulin dropped after making a glove save on Sami Salo.

"I stopped it and it came out of my glove and I tried to grab it and I missed it," Khabibulin said.

The fourth goal bothered him more.

"I thought I played it right," Khabibulin said. "I felt it hit me and I thought I had it. The next thing I know, I turn my head and it's in the net. I couldn't believe that."

Tampa Bay missed plenty of opportunities. Chris Dingman hit the post in the second period with Tampa Bay ahead 3-1. Cory Stillman missed the net from the slot with 1:08 left in regulation after a terrific setup by Vinny Lecavalier. And the team was 1-for-7 on the power play.

There were defensive goofs. Kubina was left flat-footed by Naslund, who passed to Bertuzzi, whose goal gave the Canucks a 1-0 first-period lead. And Cullimore let Bertuzzi get behind him on the tying goal.

Khabibulin, 12-13-5 with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage, is the last line of defense.

"I think it's maybe a little bit of timing right now," he said of his struggles. "That could be because of the schedule. We don't get to practice too much, so it's harder to stay on top of your game. But at the same time I don't want to use that as an excuse. Maybe it's the little things here and there."

Khabibulin can be dazzling. His stop of Trevor Linden on a three on one with 26.1 seconds left in overtime was a game-saver.

The goalie is in great shape, works diligently in practice (when the Lightning can find the time) and studies videotape.

We have seen this from Khabibulin before. The goalie struggled last season in January and February before his 16-game unbeaten streak propelled the Lightning into the playoffs.

"We know as a staff he's going to pull out of this," goaltenders coach Jeff Reese said. "We believe in Nik. All it will take is one good game or one good period and he'll go on a tear."

"Obviously, the last four games I wasn't on top of my game," Khabibulin said. "But I think this is something that's going to happen through the course of a year. I think it's something every athlete deals with. The main thing is don't get frustrated and don't get down. And keep fighting."

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