Keying on Khabibulin
Russian goalie the one to watch in rematch against U.S.Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 11:02 PM
Updated: Thursday February 21, 2002 12:46 AM
PROVO, Utah -- Itís coming one game earlier than the scriptwriters would have had it, but the matchup is here. The U.S. plays Russia in the semifinals on Friday, a rematch of last Saturdayís gorgeous 2-2 tie, and the U.S. will see something they havenít seen before in these Olympics: Nikolai Khabibulin.
Yes, the U.S. saw a player by that name in the Saturday game, but Khabibulin was just an ordinary, even sub-ordinary, masked man in that one. The U.S. tested him rarely and he still let two get by. All through the early round, Khabibulin looked shaky. He gave up nine goals in three games, had an unhealthy save percentage of .896.
Well, fellas, take a look at him now. Khabibulin stoned the Czechs 1-0 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday in as entertaining a single-goal game as youíll see and with that any concern about his uneven play evaporated into the Utah sky. The Bulin Wall is back up.
"For whatever reason, somethingís changed," said Khabibulin shortly after beating the Czechs. "Maybe it has to do with getting used to the altitude. When I first got here I was having trouble breathing. I feel much, much better now."
Russia readied for their quarterfinal match knowing they were up against Dominik Hasek and a Czech team that had beaten them for the past few years. As coach Slava Fetisov would later say, "our goal coming into the game was to win 1-0." Fetisov talked about how defense wins games like this, and the Russian blueliners did do their small part. They were superb in pouncing on rebounds and clearing them the moment they squirted free.
Khabibulin didnít have a lot of second shots to handle against the Czechs, but he had a lot of first ones to worry about. He made 41 saves and half a dozen of those pucks deserved to be in the back of the net. "We played our best game of this tournament," said Czech forward Milan Hejduk. "We also played better than we played in Nagano [when the Czech Republic beat Russia 1-0]. We had a lot of chances but their goalie beat us. He went down quick."
If the U.S. is going to overcome Khabibulin on Friday, theyíll have to do what the Czechs did not do nearly often enough: aim high. The top of the net may be Khabibulinís only area of vulnerability. His save total against the Czechs would have been even higher if he hadnít also thwarted them with positioning that drove snipers batty. Ask Jaroslav Spacek, who had nothing in his way but also no angle to shoot at when he skated into the left circle midway through the third period. Spacek, trying desperately to find the far side of the net, thwacked a slapshot wide.
The third period was fabulous and not least because Khabibulin was at his best. He turned aside Jiri Dopita five times in the final session, twice on shots that seemed to scream "tie game" as they whistled toward the net. Then, with less than 10 seconds remaining Czech captain Jaromir Jagr rushed deep into the Russian zone, went past Khabibulin, then dropped the puck back for Peter Sykora. Khabibulin blocked Sykoraís shot from the low slot then smothered the puck. Think Sykora felt bad? He had six shots turned aside in the game.
There were other heroes for Russia on Wednesday: Sergei Fedorov beat Martin Havlat on face-off after face-off, including one in the Russian zone that clinched the game with four seconds left. Forward Maxim Afinogenov batted the puck past a screened Hasek in the second period for the only goal. Vladimir Malakhov, who is having some kind of tournament puckheads, was imposing once again.
Yet it was for Khabibulin that the hordes of Russian fans cheered when he stepped out of the locker room shortly after the game. "I knew heíd play great for us," said Fetisov. "I didnít even think about what happened in the first few games."
Wednesdayís game belonged to Khabibulin, and Fridayís could too. This maybe a rematch, but the U.S. will be facing a brand new man in net.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.