CHICAGO | With 21st century sports medicine and workout routines, a 40-year-old apparently can still properly condition himself to perform like an armored-up gymnast while possessing stereoscopic vision behind a mask fit for a horror film.
If he didn’t think his middle-age muscles, sinew and eyesight-triggering-brain impulses could loosen up as such, Nikolai Khabibulin would not have gladly returned to the Blackhawks as a backup goalie.
“No matter where you are in your career, you always want to be well-conditioned,” Khabibulin said. “Science always advances, so every summer you find something new to do."
The Russian native made his NHL debut on Jan. 21, 1995 for the old Winnipeg Jets.
The NHL has hosted noted Hall of Fame older-aged players like Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios. Khabibulin is apparently cut from the same cloth. They have to make concessions to age to keep going into athletic dotage.
“When you’re 40, you’re not going to feel 20,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter how old you are, you always can learn something new.”
More than the careful preparation required, a lifelong starter like Khabibulin needs to make a subtle mental transition to a backup role. In spite of Hawks coach Joel Quenneville’s insistence Khabibulin will get his share of playing time behind Crawford, he’ll likely be no Ray Emery in workload.
During the Stanley Cup season, Emery virtually split starts with Crawford in the bunched-up schedule, his own stellar performance ranking as no worse than a 1-A goalie in Quenneville’s rotation.
“I really don’t think about it that way,” Khabibulin said of viewing his role as a reserve. “Whether I play or not, I want to prepare for a game like I’m playing in case I do have to get in. I’m trying to do that rather than sit back and relax, and talk to the guys.
“I’m trying to put it in the hands of the coaches, and whatever they decide to do, I just accept that fact that whoever is playing is playing.”
Khabibulin returned to a team that was a finished product compared to his best days in the mid-2000s.
He now has a 333-334-96 lifetime record after a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders Oct. 11 at the United Center in his only start so far. Previoulsy, Khabibulin had two exceptional seasons out of his four as a Hawk.
He was 25-6-5 with a 2.86 goals-against average in 2006-07 and 25-8-7 with 2.33 for the Western Conference Finals team that lost to the Red Wings in 2008-09. He departed as a free agent after that season, thus missing the first Stanley Cup to which he had helped shepherd in the franchise during the building process.
“It’s an honor to be here, especially being an older guy now and being the second time here,” Khabibulin said. “As of last year, this is the best team in the NHL and the world, I’d say. The fact they expressed interest in me being here makes me feel really good.”