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Huet still in battle with Khabibulin for Blackhawks starting job

MONTREAL - The battle is still on between Chicago's Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin for the starting goaltender's job in the NHL playoffs.

It appeared that Khabibulin had wrested the job from a struggling Huet when he started five games in a row, including a string of three straight wins at home, in the past two weeks, but coach Joel Quenneville said Tuesday that a true No 1. goalie has yet to be decided.

He tapped Huet to play Tuesday night in Montreal against the team that traded him just over a year ago, but Khabibulin will be back in goal when the Blackhawks return home Wednesday night to face the St. Louis Blues.

"We'll see how it goes along," Quenneville said. "Khabby had a nice stretch where he played every game for a while, but we don't have to forecast exactly how it will be.

"We will determine that as it goes along."

It is a unique goaltending situation in Chicago, which has two veterans who between them are earning more than US$12 million.

Khabibulin makes $6.750 million this season as he finishes off a $27-million, four-year contract signed in 2005. Huet inked a four-year deal as a free agent last summer that pays him $5.625 million this season.

The two have shared the net almost equally, with Khabibulin playing in 36 games, while Huet was to appear in his 40th against the Canadiens.

Together, they have helped put a young Blackhawks team that just missed the playoffs last season into a race with Vancouver for fourth place in the NHL Western Conference, although the Canucks helped their cause with a 4-0 win in Chicago on Sunday, in which Khabibulin allowed four goals on 23 shots.

"Both guys deserved the net," said Quenneville "Usually you go with one guy and the other guy supports him, but they both played so well, it was an easy situation.

"They just kept rotating. We thought at some point it would sort itself out. But Khabby got hurt and Huet had the net and then Khabby came back. I think it will sort itself out before the end."

The 36-year-old Khabibulin returned March 8 after missing 12 games and promptly lost his first two starts while the Hawks went through a 1-5-2 skid. But after Huet played in a 4-3 loss at Columbus, Khabibulin started all five games on a homestand, going 3-1-1.

A plus for Khabibulin is that he won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, while Huet has only been in the playoffs twice in his career, losing in the first round each time.

But Huet is signed through the 2010-2011 season, while Khabibulin is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Hawks placed Khabibulin on waivers in September when they were over the salary cap limit, but found no takers. Instead, they were forced to trade centre Robert Lang to Montreal for a second-round draft pick. Lang was the Canadiens goal-scoring leader until he severed an Achilles tendon on Feb. 1 and was gone for the season.

Huet relished the chance not only to get back in the net, but to do it against the Canadiens.

The 33-year-old from France blossomed as a goaltender in Montreal after he was acquired from Los Angeles in 2004.

But it was evident last season that the Canadiens considered 2005 first-round draft pick Carey Price as their goalie of the future, with another youngster Jaroslav Halak waiting in the wings. Huet's days with the club were numbered.

It was still a shock when Montreal general manager Bob Gainey moved Huet to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline last season for a second-rounder, leaving his club with two inexperienced goalies going into the playoffs.

"I don't really want to talk about that anymore," Huet said as he met with a crush of reporters at the Bell Centre. "They made a decision that they want to go with Carey and they didn't want me to stay here after.

"They made that choice."

Reports have said Montreal had a deal in place to acquire veteran goalie Johan Hedberg from Atlanta along with scoring star Marian Hossa, but that Pittsburgh stole Hossa away with a generous bid at the 11th hour. By then, Huet had already been traded.

Huet led the Capitals to an 11-2-0 record with a 1.63 goals-against average to end the regular season and put Washington into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. They were beaten in double overtime in Game 7 of the first round by Philadelphia.

Price crumbled against the Flyers in the second round and has struggled again for much of this season.

"I think he's a great goalie and he's a good man," Huet said of 21-year-old Price. "It's not easy to play here sometimes.

"They think of you too high or too low very quickly. He's going to do well."


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