Nikolai Khabibulin stepped on the fresh sheet of ice and slowly made his way to the crease at the far end of the Blackhawks' practice rink.
It was a full 25 minutes before the rest of the veteran's teammates were scheduled to take the ice Thursday and it afforded Khabibulin some alone time with goaltender coach Steve Weeks to work on what ails the netminder's game.
Khabibulin has not fared well in his last two outings while spelling starter Corey Crawford. He has yielded a combined 10 goals and didn't make it out of the second period against the Senators on Tuesday night after allowing four scores on 22 shots. Those efforts are enough to shake the confidence of any goalie, even one who is 40 with 798 career NHL games under his belt.
"To have confidence you have to play well," Khabibulin said. "I have to build the confidence somewhat through practices. Treat it like a game, go out, stop some shots."
"You have to look at what happened in the games and work on flaws," Khabibulin added. "Try to clean things up (and) try to freshen your mind."
Khabibulin would love nothing more than to have a fresh sheet in his memory bank as the rough start comes after signing a one-year, $2 million contract to replace Ray Emery as the Hawks' backup goalie. After three appearances, Khabibulin is 1-0-1 with an inflated 4.74 goals-against average and an anemic .818 save percentage. Only his teammates' offensive explosion prevented Khabibulin from suffering the regulation loss Tuesday night as they roared back to win 6-5.
"It's still early in the year, two games don't make a season," Khabibulin said. "I have to put it aside and try to do better next game."
His teammates are quick to point out Khabibulin should not be held solely accountable as they could have been better defensively.
"It's tough to see a guy get pulled midway through the game," veteran winger Patrick Sharp said. "Hockey is the ultimate team game and to put it on one guy's shoulders good or bad isn't really fair. Nik isn't happy with the way things have gone but we can be better in front of him."
While he appreciates kind words, Khabibulin isn't about to deflect responsibility for the tough times.
"It doesn't matter what happens in front of me, I still try to find things I can do better so I don't get scored on that (much)," he said. "It's nice of the guys to stick up for me but it's pretty simple I have to do better."
When Khabibulin gets that opportunity is the question. The Hawks have back-to-back contests Saturday on the road against the Jets and Sunday night at home against the Flames. Despite the long flight home from Winnipeg, Crawford very well could get both starts as coach Joel Quenneville focuses on the short term. Eventually, though, they will need Khabibulin as the Hawks have three more sets of back-to-back games in November.
"Each set we'll evaluate it," Quenneville said. "We just want to get him confident and playing the way he can. The situation will dictate when we'll get him back in. We'll get to see in practice and he'll show us when he's ready. It's a process to get him where he needs to be."
The Hawks will give Khabibulin every opportunity to right the ship, despite the fact they have Antti Raanta playing at a high level in Rockford. The free-agent signee from Finland is 5-1-0 with a 2.66 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Entering Thursday, Raanta was riding a four-game winning streak and had allowed a combined nine goals while making 132 saves during that span.
"Right now, we're fine with getting (Khabibulin) going again and him giving us all confidence as well," Quenneville said.
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