NHL

KELLEY: Khabibulin's all-world performance marks All-Star game

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 

LOS ANGELES

Finally an All-Star game where somebody cared. That somebody was Tampa Bay goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, and that he comes from one of the more unlikely corners of the hockey world, Tampa Bay, made it all the more entertaining. The likely starter for Team Russia at the upcoming Olympics and an odds-on favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender this season, Khabibulin stole more than the show in the final period of the NHL All-Star extravaganza Saturday in the Staples Center. He also took an apparent win away from the North American team, stopping shot after shot en route to turning in the rarest of rare performances in an All-Star game, 20 minutes of shutout hockey. The All-World performance enabled the World team to erase a one-goal deficit late in the third period and come on to beat the North American All-Stars 8-5. If you haven't heard of Khabibulin before this, you will now. The best from the World All-Star team outplayed his counterpart, Sean Burke, in the final period and was better than the better-known Patrick Roy and even his World team teammate Dominik Hasek. Khabibulin joins just three other All-Star goaltenders in posting a shutout period in the last 14 years. Given that the All-Star game is a shooter's affair from start to finish, it's a remarkable achievement. "It's not something you can take seriously, but when you face great players and you are able to stop all the shots, it gives you confidence," Khabibulin said. How many great shooters? Well, he stopped NHL goal-scoring leader Jarome Iginla three times in that 20-minute span. He made an identical number of saves on Detroit's Brendan Shanahan and twice stopped Colorado's Joe Sakic, game MVP Eric Daze and league scoring great Mario Lemieux. He stopped Anaheim's Paul Kariya and San Jose's Owen Nolan and New York Islanders winger Mark Parrish. Khabibulin also stopped the defense, turning away Detroit's Chris Chleios, Colorado's Rob Blake, Vancouver's Ed Jovanovski and Ottawa's Wade Redden twice. Perhaps his biggest save came off the stick of Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick, who had beat him and made him look bad on a goal in the skill's competition the night before. Roenick went in on a breakaway, but Khabibulin stopped him cold. "I knew it was him," the goalie said. "All I was thinking was that if I stopped it or not, I didn't want to look as bad as I did last night." Khabibulin couldn't help but smile when he said that. He downplayed the importance of his performance in regards to the upcoming Olympics, but the effort wasn't lost on his Russian-born teammates. World team and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik said the performance was impressive, and that that kind of effort would be the key in Salt Lake City. "Every team gets great chances, and 60 or 70 percent of the time it comes down to the goaltending," Zhitnik said. "At the Olympics, the games won't be 5-4. You've got the big ice surfaces, but it's a tighter game. In the past it's been great goaltending that gives you the chance to win it." Despite all the talk about the chances Team USA will have and the bravado coming out of the Team Canada camp, the Russians will be a formidable opponent at the Games. They have a deep and talented lineup and won the silver medal in Nagano in 1998, and that was without Khabibulin who did not play then. "I don't know if it sends a message, but he's playing excellent hockey and that's very important," said Detroit forward/defenseman Sergei Federov, another member of the Russian contingent and the World player who forced a 5-5 tie with a goal with just 3:01 remaining. "It's great to see good goaltending like that will be in our net." Said North American team member Mario Lemieux: "It was a little bit different than the last few (All-Star games) I've been involved with. The goalies, all of them played very well. They were tested a couple of times from close range and they all did well." But none did better than Khabibulin. "He's always in the right position. He doesn't give up bad rebounds which is the key to a good goalie," Lemieux said. "All the rebounds go in the bad areas where you have to regroup and start all over again. "You know, he's been playing great for a while now." We know, but the difference between doing it for Tampa and at the All-Star game is that the whole hockey world got to see it. It was a performance that won't soon be forgotten. Senior writer Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address, jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Sabres, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Islanders, Senators, Flyers, Penguins, Avalanche, Sharks, Lightning, Canucks, Coyotes, Ducks, Dominik Hasek, Brendan Shanahan, Mark Parrish, Wade Redden, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Nikolai Khabibulin, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Burke, Paul Kariya

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