With back-to-back games this weekend, I’m both curious and anxious to find out the Blackhawks’ goaltending plans.
Starting goalie Corey Crawford has been solid in net this year. Backup Nikolai Khabibulin, not so much.
Before being pulled halfway into Tuesday’s game against the Senators, Khabibulin let six goals past in a loss to Tampa Bay last week. His first start of the year, Oct. 11, was a 3-2 win with just 14 saves against the Islanders.
Tuesday, four goals slid by in 22 shots, contributing to a dismal 4.73 goals-against average and .818 save percentage this year.
“Whatever reason after a couple of goals, it just kind of snowballs,” Khabibulin explained. “I think I got to relax a bit and just go play.”
Captain Jonathan Toews, and other teammates including Patrick Sharp and starting goalie Corey Crawford came to Khabibulin’s defense. Their camaraderie and sportsmanship is admirable, and true.
“We just knew we didn’t play well enough in the first half. Corey coming in made us realize we have to be better in front of our goaltender, and putting it on Khabby is unfair,” Toews said. “We gave up too many high-quality scoring chances and you saw what happened. We got better and better as the game went along.”
While the teammates are right that they need to do a better job protecting their goalie (which they did with an incredible offense Tuesday), I can’t help but notice a lack of agility and speed in netminder.
“To have confidence you have to play well,” Khabibulin said.
He said he needs to treat practices like games to build his confidence.
“You have to look at what happened in the games and work on flaws, try to clean things up, try to freshen your mind,” Khabibulin added. “It doesn’t matter what happens in front of me, I still try to find things I can do better so I don’t get scored on that (much).
“It’s nice of the guys to stick up for me but it’s pretty simple I have to do better.”
It’s only been three games and perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. Yes, at one point, Khabby was great. But now, he can’t bounce back once he lets a goal or two past him. He doesn’t seem to have the mental or physical speed to handle choppy plays or even basic rebounds. He commits early and can’t bounce back from it to make the saves.
Whether it spurs from “being rusty” with minimal playing time, or lacking confidence, it’s something a veteran player needs to either overcome these barriers or admit he’s just not up to it anymore.
Khabibulin signed a one-year, $2 million contract for the Blackhawks this year. He played 12 games for the Oilers last year with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. He last played for the Blackhawks from 2005-2009.
I don’t think I was alone feeling shocked at the signing. After the 2010 dismantling and reassembling of the team, I learned to trust the Blackhawks organization, but I haven’t been able to see the logic in this one. I want him to do well, but my stomach is in knots when they announce he’ll be in goal. (If he’s admitted he has a confidence problem, imagine how he feels and how that impacts his play.)
With games Saturday (Winnipeg) and Sunday (Calgary) this weekend–and two other sets of consecutive games in November– the Blackhawks haven’t announced when he’ll get another chance in net.
“Each set we’ll evaluate it,” Quenneville said. “We just want to get him confident and playing the way he can. The situation will dictate when we’ll get him back in. We’ll get to see in practice and he’ll show us when he’s ready. It’s a process to get him where he needs to be.”
They don’t seem to show interest in recalling Antti Rannta from the Rockford Icehogs despite his 5-1-0 record and .926 save percentage. The Finland native signed as a free agent this summer and has a 2.40 goals-against average in the AHL.
So… prove me wrong, Khabby. Rebuild that wall of yours from the inside out.