Spring of 2001 introduced former Winnipeg Jets / Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to the Tampa Bay area. General Manager Rick Dudley had been in pursuit of Khabibulin's services - an elite, yet idle, goaltender - during the 2000-01 campaign. I remember reading Ira Kaufman at the Tampa Tribune mentioning things over and over again leading up to the 2001 NHL trade deadline. Khabibulin had been holding out with the Phoenix Coyotes. He hadn't played in almost two full seasons, sans for playing time with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League.
On March 5th, 2001, the trigger was pulled: Defenseman Stanislav Neckar and the rights to hold-out Khabibulin were traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for forward Mike Johnson, defenseman Paul Mara, prospect Ruslan Zainullin, and the New York Islanders' second round choice in the 2001 NHL entry draft (Matthew Spiller). It was a risk, with Nik having been away from the game for so long, but it was a risk proved worth taking with the performance that Khabibulin put in from start (late season games in 2001) until finish (June 7th, 2004) with the Lightning.
If all goes according to plan, Khabibulin will be the starter in net tonight for the Edmonton Oilers. It will be Khabby's first game as a starting goaltender in Times Palace since that faithful night almost eight years ago; the night he raised Lord Stanley's Cup as a champion with the rest of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier spoke about things to Damian Cristordero and urged fans to show their appreciation to the man who, for three seasons, stood as the Bulin Wall in the crease for the Bolts. It's not like we, as fans, haven't paid tribute to returning heroes before.
So, here's the plan: When the PA announces the lineups, and they mention Edmonton Oilers starting goaltender, #35, Nikolai Khabibulin, you stand up and you cheer. You cheer loud and you cheer long. And when you're done cheering, when you've paid ample tribute to a hero from bygone days with the Bolts, you cheer him some more. He's earned that respect and thanks from the fans in Tampa Bay.
...But the moment the puck drops, take that warm and fuzzy nostalgia and pack away someplace safe... Pack it away and forget about it. It's time to get down to business. That business at current is trying to get out of the mire of the moment for the Lightning - a team reeling after three straight losses. There have been more injuries, inconsistent play, and adversity than anyone could have anticipated the season. The Bolts are now all of two points out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
Wing Ryan Shannon is done for the season after having shoulder surgery. Shannon signed a one-year deal with the Lightning, seemingly as a replacement for the departed 3rd line pest in Sean Bergenheim, during the 2011 off-season. But Ryan was bogged down from nearly the start - competing for playing time with Tom Pyatt and Mattias Ritola (being scratched from games), as well as injury issues. With his season over, one has to wonder if his duration in Tampa is over as well. He'll be an Unrestricted Free Agent on July 1.
The Oilers are a bit of an enigma... They're once again at the bottom of the Western Conference standings - seemingly destined for a top five NHL draft lottery pick... Yet the Oilers have 10 players with 20 points or more this season. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lead the offensive charge for the Oil. Eberle leads the team with 70 points.