Chicago Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin makes save during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Chicago on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Cherney)
Even though the Chicago Blackhawks won by a 6-5 margin on Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, there was one player who probably wasn’t feeling all that great about the win.
That player would be back-up goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who only made it through about half of the contest before being pulled after allowing four goals on 22 shots, including three in the second period. His performance followed up a shoddy effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning last week in which he allowed six goals on 25 shots, including the overtime game winner to Martin St. Louis.
Getting pulled is never an easy thing for a goalie to deal with, but in Khabibulin’s case, it’s made worse by the amount of criticism that he received after the game. Plenty of fans and bloggers seemed ready to call up Antti Raanta from Rockford and to cut bait with the veteran goaltender, who signed a one year contract with the Hawks in July to give Raanta a year to develop his skills with the IceHogs. His sparkling 5-1-0 record and 2.40 GAA have helped Rockford to the top spot in the Western Conference, so that has only amplified the noise from the fanbase in clamoring for his recall to the Windy City.
With those numbers in mind, and with the struggles of Khabibulin as a back drop, it’s really a simple question: do the Blackhawks want to waive Khabibulin with the intent of sending him down to Rockford (it seems unlikely that a team would pick him up at this point) and bring Raanta up to replace him, or should the Hawks stay the course with Khabibulin and wait for him to work through things on his own?
The emotions of the moment may lead plenty to say that Raanta should be called up, but upon cool-headed reflection, it’s pretty obvious that Chicago should try to shore up the “Bulin Wall” first. Raanta may be thriving in Rockford, but if he is called up to the Blackhawks now, the odds are that he won’t be playing very often. In the month of November, there are only four sets of back-to-back games, which means that for the other 11 games in that month, Raanta would be sitting on the bench in a baseball cap. There is no reason for a young player that the team is trying to groom into an NHL goaltender to be sitting on the bench in Chicago when he could be starting games in Rockford.
In addition to that, the finger pointing that is going on in Khabibulin’s direction should be just as vigorous when it comes to the Hawks’ defense. At several intervals last night, the Hawks were slow to get back after line changes, and also were unable to clear netfront traffic to try to help out their struggling goaltender, so it isn’t like the failures were all Khabibulin’s fault.
On the third goal of the evening for Ottawa, Bobby Ryan was given about six feet of free ice by the Blackhawks in front of the net, and he was able to screen Khabibulin perfectly as a shot from the point found its way past him. On the their fourth goal, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook both whiffed on checks and poke-check attempts in the neutral zone, and on the ensuing rush the Senators scored easily.
Those kinds of quality chances are tough to stop for any goaltender, and even though Crawford made things look pretty easy when he came into the game last night, the Senators were doing a great job of beating the Hawks’ pressure in the neutral zone with some great speed and passing. On nights like that, the defense has got to step up and deliver some key plays, and simply put, the Hawks did not.
Pinning a poor effort like that solely on Khabibulin is the wrong approach, and if the Hawks are smart, then they are going to give Khabibulin time to work out these issues. If he is still struggling as the season moves into December or January, then the Hawks may have to consider pulling the plug, but as of right now, doing so would be premature.