Khabibulin's net struggles lead to questions

CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s hope was for goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to redeem himself Tuesday and the team’s goaltending plan could remain intact for the season.

“It’s good to get back in the net,” Quenneville said of Khabibulin two hours prior to the Blackhawks playing the Ottawa Senators. “We’re comfortable that he’s going to be a big part of it and help us out as we go along here.”

Nearly five hours later, Quenneville’s hopes for the night disintegrated and the future plan for the goaltending was less certain.

Khabibulin returned to the net Tuesday one game after allowing six goals on 25 shots against the Tampa Bay Lightning and did nothing to boost any confidence in him. Khabibulin gave up four goals, including two in one-minute span, on 22 shots against the Senators and was pulled from the game during the second period.

The Blackhawks rallied from a 4-2 deficit behind a Jonathan Toews’ hat trick and goaltender Corey Crawford’s backup performance to pull out a 6-5 win, so Khabibulin was saved from the blame of a second consecutive loss.

Yet with Khabibulin allowing 10 goals on 47 shots in the past two games and having started only three games this season, there were still plenty of questions for Quenneville about Khabibulin’s recent play and his future. Quenneville’s answers, though, didn’t reveal much of what he might truly be thinking of his goaltender.

“Yeah, tough game,” Quenneville said on the first question about Khabibulin.

Quenneville was then asked if his confidence was shaken in Khabibulin. He responded, “I don’t know if it’s confidence or what it is, but we’ll see.”

The next query was whether Quenneville understood why Khabibulin had been struggling, and he said, “I can’t really say. It’s just one of those nights, and we’ll look at it and try to get better.”

Finally, Quenneville was asked whether Khabibulin would play again soon or if Quenneville wanted to rethink the goaltending situation. “We’ll see,” he said. “We got a few days off here. Let’s get back to a day off and visit with it.”

Khabibulin wasn’t around to answer the same questions after the game. He wasn’t present in the team’s dressing room when it was opened for the media, and he didn’t come out after he was requested by a media member.

The Blackhawks certainly were hoping for different results from Khabibulin when they signed him to a one-year, $1.7 million deal in the offseason. When last year’s backup Ray Emery signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in July, the Blackhawks turned their attention to the 40-year-old Khabibulin, who had previously played for the organization.

Khabibulin had his share of ups and downs the last few seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, but Blackhawks general manger Stan Bowman was confident Khabibulin had some good hockey left him.

“It was pretty apparent when we looked at the list of players of goalies that were available Nik was the best candidate for that position,” Bowman said in July. “We were really thrilled to add him to our team I think for a number of reasons.

“No. 1, I think he is able to be the tandem with Corey that we experienced the last couple years and that worked so well. Nik’s a guy, a goaltender who has had an accomplished career, and he has a lot of game left in him, and he doesn’t want to be a guy that just plays a few games. He’s a competitive guy. He wants the chance to help our team try to come back with a strong season. For that reason, it was very appealing for both sides.”

The Blackhawks do have a potential Plan B waiting in Rockford, Ill. The Blackhawks signed goaltender Antti Raanta last season after he starred in Finland’s SM-liiga. Raanta was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL to start the season, so he could get accustomed to North American hockey. He has a 5-1-0 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

The plan probably wasn't to turn to Raanta this early in the season, but then again the plan may have changed with Khabibulin’s performance on Tuesday.