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Reflecting on the Bulin Wall

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Former Tampa Bay Lightning netminder was very important to team's 2004 Cup

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The 1990's were an amazing time for me.I fell in love with women, rock music, and hockey. A special thank you to EA Sports for making some of the best hockey video games of all time too, because without them and the Mighty Ducks movies, I probably would have never fell head over heels in love with hockey.

When my mom bought me NHL '96 for Christmas 1996, it was like the Hockey Gods presenting me with a gift direct from heaven. It provided me hours of non-stop excitement, and a treat after my chores were done. Nothing says relaxation like pizza a cold Dr. Pepper, and NHL '96.

The team I used the most during game play was the Winnipeg Jets. They were like my favorite Canadian team, and had some cool players on the roster like Keith Tkachuk, Teemu Selanne, Teppo Numminen, Alexei Zhamnov, Igor Korolev, and Ed Olczyk.

But the one guy who I developed a man-crush on was their goalie out of Russia. The very entertaining Nikolai Khabibulin.

Nikolai Khabibulin was one of the bright spots on the 1990's Winnipeg Jets. (Courtesy of Al Bello/Allsport)

Nikolai Khabibulin was one of the bright spots on the 1990's Winnipeg Jets. (Courtesy of Al Bello/Allsport)

One of the first times the spotlight of North American sports got a glance at this wonderful specimen was in the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings. That season, Khabibulin had a pretty nice regular season for the Jets, going 26-20 with 3 ties, a 3.13 GAA and a .908 saves percentage. The Jets pushed the Wings to 6 games, and that was partly due to the play of then 23 year-old Khabibulin (who posted a 3.18 GAA and a .911 save percentage during the series).

After the 1995-96 season, the Jets would be in flight to their new home in Phoenix, where they became the Coyotes. Khabibulin would continue to provide solid play for the new-look Coyotes, including an outstanding 1998-99 season, when he went 32-23 with 7 ties, a .920 saves percentage and a 2.13 GAA.

When I got Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey for Nintendo 64 one year, my buddy Kent Marshall decided to come over and play me in a best of 7. He was pretty confident he'd wipe the floor with me, and didn't mind saying so.

Kent: "Did you remember to get the pizza?"

Me: "Yes, I did. Combination with extra mushrooms."

Kent: "Well this should be easy. I got the Red Wings with Yzerman and Fedorov. Who are you picking?"

Me: "I got the Coyotes with Roenick and Khabibulin."

Kent: "Oh boy".

When you have Nikolai Khabibulin, you don't need much else.

Not only did he help me beat Kent Marshall, but his play on actual ice caught the eye of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were looking to upgrade their goaltending situation. In 2000, Khabibulin was traded to the Lightning (along with defenseman Stan Neckar) for Paul Mara, Mike Johnson, Ruslan Zainullin and the New York Islanders second-round pick. It proved to be a smart move for Tampa Bay, because in just a few years, they were a Stanley Cup contender.

Nikolai Khabibulin was one of the reasons the Lightning became Cup contenders. (Courtesy of Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Nikolai Khabibulin was one of the reasons the Lightning became Cup contenders. (Courtesy of Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Led by Khabibulin, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Lightning became one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, combining great goaltending, bountiful scoring and a very underrated defense. The Bolts made the playoffs in 2002-03 (only the second time in franchise history), and the next yea, took the NHL by storm (pun intended) by beating the Calgary Flames in 7 games to win the Stanley Cup. In the playoffs, Khabibulin was money, leading all teams in wins (16) and Shutouts (5).

Nikolai Khabibulin had arrived.

The Nikolai Khabibulin Years in Tampa
Year Games W-L-OTL Saves % GAA Shutouts
2000-01 2 1-1-0 .913 2.93 0
2001-02 70 24-32-10 .920 2.36 7
2002-03 65 30-22-11 .911 2.47 4
2003-04 55 28-19-7 .910 2.33 3
Totals
4 Years 192 83-74-28 .914 2.39 14

During the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals against the Flyers, coach John Tortorella told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Khabibulin pretty much was the team's defense.

"When our defense has broken down, Nik's been outstanding," Tortorella said. "He's been our best player and he's going to have to be in the next series. I think he just wants to keep himself focused."

After the 2004 Cup Finals, Khabibulin's stock went through the roof. Then-GM Jay Feaster exercised an option-year on Khabibulin's contract to guarantee Khabby would return for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, the 2004-05 season was wiped out by way of Lockout. When things were settled, all players had their 2004-05 contract years wiped away.

That made Khabibulin an unrestricted free agent and the Chicago Blackhawks, decided to sign "The Wall" to a four year-$27 million contract (opting for Chicago over a similar contract from Tampa Bay). However, his play was less than stellar, and Chicago finished next to last in the Western Conference.

Nikolai Khabibulin's career in Chicago had its ups and downs. (Courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Nikolai Khabibulin's career in Chicago had its ups and downs. (Courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Despite the slow start, Khabibulin kept his head up, and in 2008-09, he had one of his best seasons, going 25-8-7 for Chicago, who went all the way to the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like "The Bulin Wall" was back to his old self.

Then he signed with the Edmonton Oilers.

This is not a knock on the Oilers, but at the time of his free agent singing with the club in 2009, they were going through some really rough times and didn't have the blue line to protect Khabibulin. So, instead of helping the Oilers revitalize their franchise, Khabibulin struggled. Khabby retired after the 2013-14 season, having played all of 4 games with the Blackhawks (who he had joined) and posting a 5.00 GAA, .811 save percentage and a 1-0-1 record.

Despite how his career ended, no one can deny that Nikolai Khabibulin had a pretty decent career. He could make the big save when his team needed him, and for a period of time, was one of the best goalies in the entire world. Also, when it comes to playing NHL '96, I loved playing with no one more than "The Bulin Wall."

Was it a mancrush?

You betcha.