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For Hawks to make playoffs, Khabibulin must take them
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Columnist

Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin attempts to stop a shot by Calgary's Jarome Iginla, left, during the first period of Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Flames at the United Center.


Associated Press

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Published: 12/13/2007 12:12 AM

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It should have been an eye-opening week for the Blackhawks.

If the Hawks didn't realize how difficult it could be to make the playoffs in a Western Conference that is strong from top to bottom, they should now.

What the last week also should have told everyone is that if the Hawks are going to play in the postseason, they will need to get better-than-average goaltending.

In home ice losses to Vancouver, Anaheim and Calgary in the last week, Nikolai Khabibulin was outplayed in each game by his counterpart. First, it was Roberto Luongo of the Canucks, then Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Gugure and finally, the Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff.

The Hawks are only going to reach the playoffs if Khabibulin takes them there, and his play has to improve starting with the .901 save percentage he took into Wednesday's game against the Los Angeles Kings at the United Center.

The Hawks outshot the Canucks 27-21 last Wednesday and lost 3-2. Vancouver's first goal, a backhander from defenseman Mattias Ohlund less than eight minutes into the game, wasn't a good one.

The Hawks outshot the Ducks 42-22 in a 5-3 loss last Friday. And in Sunday's 3-2 loss to Calgary, the Hawks had a 37-29 edge in shots on goal. Owen Nolan's first-period goal for the Flames from near the left boards off Khabibulin's glove should not have happened.

During Khabibulin's first two years with the Hawks, it was OK for him to be average because the team in front of him was below average. The stakes are higher now. The Hawks have a team as good as most in the West, and they need Khabibulin to be a difference maker on more nights than not.

The Hawks certainly are paying Khabibulin to be that guy. There's not another goalie in the NHL who collects more than Khabibulin's $6.75 million salary, which is also the largest in Hawks history. Luongo makes $6.75 million as well and is considered one of the top two goalies in the world, along with Martin Brodeur.

This is not to suggest Khabibulin should be traded. That is the business of Hawks general manager Dale Tallon, who has given no indication of being either eager or willing to do it. Tallon wants to make the playoffs and likely realizes the best chance for that to happen is with Khabibulin in goal.

But what if Khabibulin's game stays where it's at? What if Tampa Bay comes calling offering either Martin St. Louis or Brad Richards in a deal? There has been an ownership change in Tampa, and there probably isn't another team in the league that needs better goaltending than the Lightning.

At this point, the assumption has to be made that the Hawks are going to keep Khabibulin and let him play into next season, the last on his contract. Coach Denis Savard never misses an opportunity to back his No. 1 goalie to anyone questioning the quality of play the Hawks are getting out of the position, which is fine.

But Savard also saw the Vancouver, Anaheim and Calgary games. He even called them playoff-type games, which is interesting because in the playoffs the team with better goaltending usually goes farther.