Tonight Nikolai Khabibulin made his first appearance in Tampa Bay since turning away 16 of 17 shots for the Lightning in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final against Calgary. Throughout the playoffs I cheered for whoever was playing Calgary and by the time they reached the finals I was in almost constant state of fear that they might actually win the Stanley Cup. It was a thought that was almost too much to bear.
But in that final Khabibulin played some really great hockey, posting a save percentage of 0.918 and holding the Flames to a single goal or less three times (three of Tampa Bay's four wins). He was a big reason why the Flames didn't win that series and for that I'm grateful but part of me wonders if a Khabibulin without a Stanley Cup ring would have been just a little less attractive to Steve Tambellini in July of 2009 when the Oilers signed him to a four-year deal.
Khabibulin has been a big part of what has been wrong with the Oilers during the last three seasons during which the team has finished last twice and appears to be headed for a second last finish season this time around. That all of this could somehow be tied to the seven games when I cheered for him is a little depressing. But if I could go back and do it all over I wouldn't change a thing.
For those interested in the game that was actually played tonight and not one from June of 2004, there is a recap after the jump.
Ales Hemsky, fresh off his first career hat-trick in Nashville on Tuesday night, kept up his strong play and had the first good scoring chance of the game almost putting the Oilers on the board in the early minutes of the first period after he turned Victor Hedman inside out at the Tampa Bay blue line giving him a breakaway on ex-teammate Dwayne Roloson. Hemsky shot glove side on Roloson but wasn't able to able to finish off what would have been a highlight reel goal. Hemsky would get his name on the score sheet but, for my money, he was the best Oiler on the ice tonight.
The Lightning started the period slowly, taking a page out the Oilers playbook by not registering a shot until after the midway point of the period. Once they did get going they managed to create some chances, the best coming off the stick of 50-goal scorer Steven Stamkos who capitalized on a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins turnover in the neutral zone (the pass from Nick Schultz was a little ahead of him and the puck appeared to bounce on him as well) and turned the play around taking a quick slap shot from the top of the circle. Khabibulin made the pad save but didn't look particularly strong on the play.
The only power play of the first period went to the Lightning after Ryan Smyth was sent to the penalty box for high sticking. The Oilers probably should have been the team on the power play after Keith Aulie caught Linus Omark with a high stick a few seconds before the Smyth penalty but the referees didn't make that call. On the power play the Lighning moved the puck well and would have taken the lead if not for a Stamkos miss on a one-timer at the side of the net.
Since scoring goal number 50 Stamkos has been held off the score sheet in each of the last three games. After his chances in the first period he continued his search for his 51st goal of the season early in the second period after Brett Connolly picked off a soft Jordan Eberle pass just inside the Tampa Bay zone and moved the puck ahead to Stamkos sending him in on a breakaway. Stamkos went to the backhand but Khabibulin stayed with him and made the pad save.
Stamkos did everything he could to give the Lightning the lead but it would be one of Tampa Bay's lesser offensive players, Tom Pyatt, who would get the Lightning on the board. With Smyth serving his second penalty of the night, a very debatable hooking call, Hedman made a very nice spin pass to Pyatt in front on the Oilers net were the puck bounced of Pyatt's skate and past Khabibulin giving the Lightning the lead.
Omark would get the Oilers back to even six minutes later when he tipped home a Ryan Whitney pass from the Tampa Bay slot for his third goal of the season, all of which have come in the seven games he's played in since being recalled from Oklahoma City earlier this month. It's clear that Whitney still has the head and hands to be an effective NHL player, it's just too bad he doesn't also have the legs to round out the package.
Having retaken the lead in the 19th minute of the second period when Pyatt jammed a loose puck past Khabibulin for his 10th goal of the season and the first multi goal game of his career, the Lightning went into a bit of a defensive shell in the third period in an attempt to protect their one goal lead. And it almost worked too. The Oilers generated a few chances in the final period but it wasn't until late in the third that they were able to tie the game at two. Nugent-Hopkins passed the puck to from below the goal line, through the crease to Ladislav Smid who had come in from the point to score his fourth goal of the season, a new career high, that drew the Oilers even.
In extra time the Lightning had the better chances to end the game as a result of two minutes of four-on-three after Jeff Petry was called for tipping. On the power play the Lightning would get three shots onto Khabibulin but couldn't beat the Oilers netminder for the game winning goal and forcing the game to a shootout. The Oilers chose Eberle, Sam Gagner, and Omark as their first three shooters, getting a goal from Gagner. The Lightning countered with Pyatt, Ryan Malone, and Stamkos who scored on the Lightning's final attempt to extend the shootout past the first three shooters.
In the fourth round Martin St. Louis and Hemsky traded goals, followed by misses from both Hedman and Teemu Hartikainen. After Teddy Purcell put the Lightning ahead in the sixth round it was up to Smyth to keep the Oilers alive. His wrist shot beat Roloson but deflected off the inside of the post and out the other side giving the Lightning a win and keeping a two point cushion between the Oilers and 28th place.