The Chicago Blackhawks have announced that goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin will get the start on Friday against the New York Islanders. This will be Khabibulin's first start of the season and it's certainly not an easy task going up a young and talented Islanders offense. Khabibulin will give starting goaltender Corey Crawford a rest, who currently has a 1-1-1 record. Although backup goalies are mostly used as insurance and aren't asked to carry the load, there might be some added pressure on Khabibulin this season.
Last season, Blackhawks backup goalie Ray Emery was incredible. He posted a 17-1-0 record in the regular season and helped lead the team to the best record in the NHL. Emery was also solid in 2011-2012, going 15-9-4. This past offseason, Emery left via free agency to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Blackhawks brought in Khabibulin as his replacement. Although a backup, Khabibulin will have big skates to fill.
Khabibulin, 40, is the second oldest goalie in the NHL next to Martin Brodeur (41). He has been in the league since 1994 and is getting to the end of his career. Khabibulin had a previous stint with the Blackhawks from 2005-2009. He was the starting goalie during that stretch and played a total of 202 regular season games. In those four years, he had a record of 90-80-24, to go along with six shutouts. Those aren't necessarily great numbers, but to Khabibulin's defense, the Blackhawks were just in the midst of building a championship team. He just happened to leave the team as they started to get better. After his time with the Blackhawks, Khabibulin spent the next four years with the Edmonton Oilers, failing to post a winning record in each season.
Obviously Khabibulin isn't the same goalie he once was earlier in his career. He's getting older and it shows at times. He did however look good throughout training camp and preseason this year and could maybe be rejuvenated from joining the Stanley Cup champions.
So what are realistic expectations for Khabibulin this season? We can't expect him to have a season like Emery did last year, but he should be able to come in and get the Blackhawks some wins. Khabibulin will probably be called upon to play 20-25 games depending how Crawford is performing. With the Blackhawks talented offense and solid rotation of defensemen, it is realistic to expect at least 15 wins from Khabibulin this season. It would be a bonus if he could get his goals against average close to two per game and if his save percentage was north of .920.
Friday night will be the first real test for Khabibulin and will give the team and fans an idea of how he may do for the duration of the season. Let's hope Khabibulin comes out strong trying to prove himself and leads the Blackhawks to victory.
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