Blackhawks hope to welcome Khabibulin back

By Andy Lefkowitz
Stats Writer

Columbus (35-27-6) at Chicago (37-19-9), 8:30 p.m. EDT

CHICAGO (Ticker) — The Chicago Blackhawks are coping without
injured star Patrick Sharp. On Friday, though, they may have a
key to this season’s resurgence back in goal for the first time
in more than a month.

Nikolai Khabibulin could get the start and the Blackhawks will
look to extend their recent dominance over the surging Columbus
Blue Jackets as the Central Division rivals face off at the
United Center.

Playing in the final season of a four-year, $27 million
contract, Khabibulin is 17-5-5 with a 2.37 goals-against average
in 29 games. He’s played particularly well at home, going 7-1-4
with a 2.01 GAA and one shutout.

Khabibulin missed 13 games after being placed on injured reserve
February 12 with a sore groin. The 36-year-old was activated on
Wednesday, but no immediate decision was made about him getting
the start.

With Cristobal Huet and rookie Antti Niemi playing in place of
Khabibulin, Chicago went 7-5-1. Despite that mediocre stretch,
the Blackhawks have a six-point lead over fifth-place Vancouver
in the Western Conference. Should the Blackhawks remain in
fourth the rest of the way, they would have home-ice advantage
in the first round of the playoffs — someplace they haven’t
been since 2002.

“Every two points are important,” defenseman Duncan Keith told
the Blackhawks’ official Web site. “There are still some games
to be played, but we’ve got to take care of the home-ice
advantage while we’re here.”

If Khabibulin plays, it would be his first action against
Columbus in 2008-09. He’s lost four of his last six starts
versus the Blue Jackets, allowing at least four goals four

Chicago (37-19-9), though, has won five of its last six versus
Ken Hitchcock’s club, including two wins this season behind

On November 1, he made 48 saves through overtime and denied
three shootout attempts en route to the 4-3 win. He was back in
net on December 14, and after giving up a goal 1:35 in, finished
with 31 saves in a 3-1 home victory.

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Following two lackluster losses in which the Blackhawks allowed
10 goals, Chicago bounced back with a 3-2 shootout win over
Carolina on Wednesday. Huet stopped former Blackhawk Sergei
Samsonov in the fourth round after rookie Kris Versteeg had the
go-ahead score.

One of four 20-goal scorers for the Blackhawks, Sharp has missed
11 games with a lower-body injury and it’s not known when he may
return. Martin Havlat, who has 21 goals and is tied for second
with 57 points, could play after missing one game with the same
injury as Sharp.

Columbus (35-27-6) comes in having won three straight against
stiff competition. Following Saturday’s 8-2 rout in Detroit and
a 2-0 victory over Northeast-leading Boston on Tuesday, the Blue
Jackets ended Pittsburgh’s seven-game winning streak with a 4-3
shootout win on Thursday.

Rookie Steve Mason gave up three goals in a 3:25 span midway
through the third period, but stopped Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin in the tiebreaker.

“Look who we beat in the last three games,” Hitchcock said. “We
beat Detroit, we beat Boston, we beat the hottest team in the
NHL. It’s hard. Every game is hard. There are no breathers.
… It’s the way it is right now.”

Kristian Huselius scored in regulation and had the only marker
in the shootout. Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette each had a
goal and assist as Columbus matched a franchise record for wins
in a season set in 2005-06. Vermette has a goal and three
assists in three games for the Blue Jackets since being acquired
from the Ottawa Senators.

Rick Nash failed to find the back of the net after scoring five
of his team-high 32 goals in a three-game streak. The Columbus
captain has one assist in two games against the Blackhawks this
season, and has been held without a point in six of his last
seven games in Chicago.