TAMPA — Ten years ago G Nikolai Khabibulin was in the midst of his third full season with the Lightning, blazing a path toward a Stanley Cup championship.
Tonight, Khabibulin will make just his second start against Tampa Bay on the same ice he helped the Lightning win a championship. Nearly 10 years since leading Tampa Bay to a Game Seven victory, returning to the Forum to face his former team stirs up the emotions of the Stanley Cup run.
“I had such a great experience here,’’ Khabibulin said. “I think the whole team and how we were really together a lot of guys stepped in obviously the star players played great and to me the biggest memory was winning the last game at home.’’
Lightning captain Marty St. Louis is the only remaining member of that 2004 championship team still with Tampa Bay, but he remembers how much Khabibulin’s presence was a major factor in helping turn the Lightning in a contending team.
“I remember when we first got him (via trade from Phoenix) I couldn’t believe how good he was in practice just fighting for every puck, it was tough to score on him and made us better,’’ St. Louis said. “At times he was just the backbone of our team and without Khabby I don’t think we are celebrating the Stanley Cup.’’
The most memorable save Khabibulin made came in the final minutes of Game 7 against Calgary when he pushed to his left to stop a rebound chance from Flames’ defenseman Jordan Leopold, which would have tied the game. At times Khabibulin finds himself thinking about that stop.
“As time goes by less and less but yes sometimes you look at that shot you think “what if?’, so it feels good,’’ he said.
No O from the D
Tampa Bay entered Thursday’s game with only one goal coming from a defenseman, and that came courtesy of a Sami Salo 141-foot shot into an empty net on Oct. 17.
Cooper preaches that the defense join the rush and become part of the offense when the puck is in the offensive zone. While Cooper is pleased with the way the defesemen have jumped in the play, getting goals from that position is an area he wants to see improved upon.
“Yes it is a concern,’’ Cooper said. “The problem is two-fold. First we are not shooting the puck and we are bailing on plays as defenseman instead of walking (with our) head up, just getting it by the first guy and see what happens. Two, our forwards are not getting the D the puck enough. ... we are just trying to make that point of emphasis that it’s five guys on offense. You have to get those guys involved because ultimately you just become an easy team to scout.’’
D Victor Hedman said that point has been discussed throughout the past few days.
“We want to contribute with goals and that’s the type of game that we need to start playing,’’ Hedman said. “We have to get open for our forwards to make sure that we can get the puck and get pucks to the net. It’s going to be even more important as we go on you need the D to score goals and make plays to win hockey games. We need to be accountable in that part of the game.’’
Back to Bishop
G Ben Bishop was pulled in his last start after giving up four goals, but for Thursday’s game against Chicago Cooper will go back to Bishop, who was a big reason the Lightning beat the Blackhawks in Chicago on Oct. 5.
“He’s been very consistent for us this year and we don’t get the two points out of Chicago without him,’’ Cooper said. “So if you think about it if you look at the perspective of the other team, I’m sure they would rather see somebody that didn’t stymie them than somebody that has so hopefully they are thinking twice and Bish has the spewing confidence and it works out for us.
“But he is been great for us all year and the fact that he played really well against Chicago helped get him in tonight.