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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

times.

Chicago (37-19-9), though, has won five of its last six versus

Ken Hitchcock's club, including two wins this season behind

Huet.

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.

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.

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