Nikolai Khabibulin looks to continue nearly 15-year dominance of the Calgary Flames

Tonight marks the beginning of the first round of the NHL Playoffs with 4 games on tap, but meanwhile the Calgary Flames will have one more day to figure out a way to stop the “Bulin Wall”-Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. There is no denying Khabibulin’s playoff experience (remember the Tampa Bay Lightning’s improbable 2004 Stanley Cup run) and his numbers against Calgary don’t lie. Every player says the right things, that the playoffs are a new season. Khabibulin came on strong at the end of the season when Chicago needed him most, taking over as number one goaltender; Khabby shutout the Detroit Red Wings this past Sundat to end the regular season. This is why they play the games.

Plan to crack Khabby in place

If the enemy netminder is struggling, fire a lot of pucks.

If the enemy netminder is stellar, fire a lot of pucks.

“It’s almost comical. . . or hypocritical, right?” says Michael Cammalleri. “Every day we get reports on these goalies and it’s the same things. ‘Get a lot of traffic. They hate traffic.’Although I’ve yet to meet a goaltender who loves getting screened. ‘And when he’s down, shoot high. And when he’s up, shoot low.’

“I mean, it’s really common sense stuff.”

The issue at hand, not surprisingly, is how the Calgary Flames plan to beat archrival Nikolai Khabibulin, star goal-keeper of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cammalleri insists it’s important that the Flames aren’t intimidated by his presence, starting Thursday in Game 1 of their National Hockey League first-round clash.

In other words, continue to play to your strengths.

Avoid being too fine.

“You don’t want change your shot –ever–because of a goaltender,” Cammalleri says. “The best goalies have that ability, to make players change their shot, and that’s when you get into trouble.You can’t change where you’re going to put it . . . based on the goaltender’s play, based on the distraction, ‘Oh, he’s too good to beat.’

“You still want to make your shot. If he makes a save, he makes a save.”

Which, of course, is precisely what Khabibulin has been doing forever against the Flames. Hence, the career log of 22-5-2 (2.06 GAA).

“Yeah, I saw that record the other night,” says Rene Bourque.

“Obviously, he’s a great goalie. When he’s on his game, he’s hard to beat. I played with him for three years and he’s one of the best goalies in the league. It’s not going to be easy to get ’em by him, but we’ll have to find a way.”

That lopsided work includes the 2004 Stanley Cup final, when, as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he edged the Flames in a seven-game set (4-3, 1.85 GAA).

This winter, Khabibulin, 36, prevailed in all three of regular-season starts against Calgary (1.99 GAA).

Coach Mike Keenan was asked about lifetime one-sidedness, one goalie versus one team.

Has he ever seen that before? Of course, he has.

“I think Ken Dryden dominated the Boston Bruins, for example,” says Keenan. “Well, obviously (Khabibulin) is a confident goalie — he’s playing well right now . . . two shutouts in his last four games (of the regular season). We know that. It’s one thing that’s going to be intriguing about this series — two excellent goalies.”

While the masked men in question are comparable in post-season experience–Miikka Kiprusoff’s 50 playoff appearances (23-24) versus Khabibulin’s 57 (31-25) — Flames goaltending guru David Marcoux downplays the showdown aspect.

“They don’t compete, one against the other,” says Marcoux. “Miikka competes against the shooters of the Chicago Blackhawks. And Nikolai Khabibulin competes against our guys in here. He has no control over the other guy at the other end. And vice versa.”

“But you can’t take away the Stanley Cup from Khabibulin. And what one guy has, the other wants.”

“From an entertainment standpoint, it’s great. But it’s not about Miikka, it’s not about Khabibulin. It’s about the Calgary Flames going into Chicago and winning Game 1.”