- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — Russian Nikolai Khabibulin won an Olympic gold medal at 20, was Winnipeg’s MVP at 23 and became an All-Star goalie at 26. But then a contract dispute derailed Khabibulin’s career for almost two full seasons before he was dealt to the lousy Tampa Bay Lightning in 2001.

“Nik had the talent, but I think mentally he needed some stability in his game,” said Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, a teammate of sure Hall of Fame goalies Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy during his 22-year career. “He went through a little bit of a tough stretch this year [3-9-2 with a 6.44 goals-against from Dec. 9 to Jan.27], but that made him stronger going into the playoffs. He’s a top goalie, and he’s going to be there for a while because of how mentally strong he is.”

Miikka Kiprusoff left his native Finland for Sweden at 21, made the jump to North America at 22 and won an NHL playoff game at 24. But he remained second fiddle in San Jose to Evgeni Nabokov, and when Vesa Toskala showed he could handle the backup chores in training camp, Kiprusoff became an afterthought and was traded to the mediocre Calgary Flames on Nov.16.

“You’re getting a player that’s 27 years old and has something to prove,” said Flames boss Darryl Sutter, who had coached Kiprusoff with the Sharks and didn’t waste much time trading for him when incumbent starter Roman Turek injured a knee in October. “It was a point in Kipper’s career where he had to find some other place to try to be the No.1 guy.”

Khabibulin, 31, or Kiprusoff, 27, will soon join Czech Hasek as the only European goalies to win a Stanley Cup. Their matchup in these deadlocked finals, which continue with Game5 here tonight, is just the second all-European affair following Hasek’s conquest for Detroit of Latvia’s Arturs Irbe of Carolina in 2002. Kiprusoff and Khabibulin have five shutouts each this spring. The only goalies with more in a postseason were Cup winners Brodeur of New Jersey (seven in 2003) and Hasek (six in 2002).

“If you’re going to be in the Stanley Cup Finals, your goaltender better be your best player,” said Lightning coach John Tortorella, whose first major move as Tampa Bay’s coach was acquiring Khabibulin with whom he had worked for three years as a Phoenix assistant. “Nik has played very well for us. That’s why we’re here. Here’s a man who has gone through some scrutiny, some situations where he has to answer and he’s been terrific.”

Khabibulin is 6-0 with a 0.83 goals-against after playoff losses. The quick Kiprusoff, who set a modern era record with a 1.69 goals-against average this season despite missing six weeks with a knee injury, is 6-1, 1.36 after postseason defeats.

Khabibulin, nicknamed “the Bulin Wall” because it’s hard to get shots by his well-padded 6-foot-1, 213-pound frame, had a red-hot start to the playoffs with a record-tying three shutouts in the opening series against the New York Islanders and a 9-1 record and 0.95 goals-against average through Game1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

“Nik doesn’t give you much net to shoot at it, and you really can’t try to pick a spot because he seems to know from the angle of your stick where you’re trying to shoot,” Lightning center Tim Taylor said.

However, Khabibulin is just 5-5 with a 2.52 goals-against average in his last 10 games while the less experienced Kiprusoff is peaking. Kiprusoff, who’s listed at 6-2 and 190 but seems scrawnier, allowed five goals in three of his first nine games this spring but has been beaten just seven times in his past six games. After surrendering six goals on just 24 shots in his third Calgary start, Kiprusoff proved himself to his teammates by allowing just six in his next six starts. He’s 9-0, 1.00 this year after giving up four or more goals.

“Kipper never gets rattled,” Flames defenseman Mike Commodore said. “He’s always calm. I can’t remember too many times where there’s a shot and I’m worried about where the puck is. He either freezes it or plays it into the corner. He’s very good at staying square to the shooter and making sure the pucks are in the right places.”

Unlike the talkative Brodeur, the outspoken Roy or the quirky Hasek, neither Khabibulin nor Kiprusoff says much, but that’s fine with their teammates.

“Nik is driven to be the best,” Taylor said. “He doesn’t like to talk to the media. He’s motivated by winning, not by publicity. He’s also one of the hardest-working goalies I have ever seen. He’s out there half an hour before practice every day working with the goalie coach. Most starting goalies don’t do that. That’s why he is where he is.”

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