Hawks optimistic about Khabibulin

Marian Hossa scored the game-winner against Nikolai Khabibulin in overtime on Feb. 25. Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks saw 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin perform as if he were still in his prime last season.

Khabibulin nearly ended the Blackhawks’ point streak at 18 games when the Edmonton Oilers came to Chicago on Feb. 25, but Viktor Stalberg scored early in the third to tie the game and the Hawks won in overtime.

Khabibulin’s season took a dive from there. He aggravated a groin injury during the Blackhawks’ game and missed nearly a month. When he returned, his consistency wasn’t the same. After allowing 10 goals in the first five games, he allowed three or more goals in five of his final seven games. He finished with a 4-6-1 record, a 2.55 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.

In signing Khabibulin in the offseason, the Blackhawks are hopeful he can more often locate that elite level and avoid that mediocrity for at least one more year.

Corey Crawford will be the starter again and Antti Raanta could at some point replace Khabibulin as the backup next season, but there’s the potential for Khabibulin to get 20-plus starts with the schedule returning to 82 games and it again being compact due to the Olympics. The Blackhawk will play 18 sets of back-to-back games.

Consistency hasn’t been Khabibulin’s strength lately. Ups and downs have characterized his play over the last three seasons.

Khabibulin has been brilliant at times. He made 43 saves in a shutout against the St. Louis Blues last season. He began the 2011-12 season by allowing just eight goals in the first seven games and 23 goals over the first 17 games. Last season, he had a .935 save percentage after five starts.

Khabibulin hasn’t been able to keep up those numbers, though. Post Christmas in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, he combined for a 3-33-6 record and a .880 save percentage for the Oilers.

In the 2011-12 season, his save percentage deteriorated almost every month. He posted a .960 save percentage in October, .918 in November, .896 in December, .893 in January, .887 in February and .887 in March.

Khabibulin’s age has been catching up with him. He required surgery due to a herniated disk during the 2009-10 season. He suffered a hip/groin injury during the 2011-12 season and battled through the pain. He underwent surgery after the season and didn’t play in his first 2013 game until Feb. 9. Plus, he missed more time in the 2013 season due to his hip.

Injuries will be a concern for Khabibulin again this season. He’s entering his 18th NHL season and will be turning 41 on Jan. 13. If he can’t stay healthy, that could accelerate how quickly Raanta, who was signed last season from Finland, is brought up from Rockford. The Blackhawks’ plan is to begin Raanta in the AHL to get him used to playing North American hockey. Mac Carruth and Kent Simpson will also likely see time in Rockford next season.

On the other hand if Khabibulin remains healthy, the Blackhawks could rely on him until Raanta is prepared for the NHL. Bringing up Raanta in the second half of the season could also limit Khabibulin’s recent late-season struggles.

Either way, the Blackhawks can’t expect Khabibulin to match Ray Emery’s play last season. Even if Emery returned, he likely wouldn't have repeated what he did last season. Emery was the league’s best backup with a 17-1-0 record, 1.94 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in the regular season. The Blackhawks’ regular-season success was as much due to Emery as it was Crawford.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman tried to re-sign Emery, but Emery chose the Philadelphia Flyers as they presented the better opportunity to start next season. Plan B became Khabibulin.

The Blackhawks presented Khabibulin a chance to win a Stanley Cup. Khabibulin presented the Blackhawks with a solid backup goaltender for the right price for one season.

“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,” GM Stan 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.”