SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The last game Nikolai Khabibulin played for the Blackhawks was in the 2009 Western Conference finals against Detroit -- before they became the wildly popular two-time Stanley Cup champions.
A lot has changed since then. Khabibulin, back for a second tour of duty with the Hawks, says one thing stands out above all else.
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"Overall it seems like there's more confidence in the room, whether it's the guys that have been here or the guys from the minors," Khabibulin said. "It seems like there's kind of like a swagger and that's explainable. You win two Stanley Cups in four years and it makes it that way.
"When I was here last we just started going that way and they just took off after that. It's a really positive atmosphere. I got a taste of it at the beginning, but it's more now. It's really a pleasure to be here."
Khabibulin spent four seasons with the Hawks from 2006-09 and at the time was the highest-paid goalie in the NHL with a cap hit of $6.75 million.
He's back on a one-year deal worth $2 million to be Corey Crawford's backup, replacing Ray Emery, who signed as a free agent with Philadelphia.
Crawford and Emery were tight and shared the Jennings Trophy last season for fewest goals allowed. Crawford attended a few training camps with Khabibulin in the past and expects to pick up this relationship where the one with Emery left off.
"Me and Ray were pretty close, but Khabby is a great guy too," Crawford said. "He's easy to approach and get along with so I don't see too much that will change."
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who doesn't want to put a number on how many games he expects Khabibulin to play, sees nothing but positives in the 40-year-old veteran being back with the team.
"I like a lot of things about Khabby," said Quenneville. "In the net he's big, he's smart, and you love his professionalism.
"It's a perfect spot for us, knowing his experience can add with Corey. I think he'll fit right in with the team. One thing about Khabby, he's always been a great teammate. There's always a healthy competition with goalies. I think Khabby will want the net, but he understands where he fits."
Khabibulin said he is always available to help Crawford or Antti Raanta or whoever needs advice or guidance.
"I think (Crawford) has developed into a really good goalie. Just watching the playoffs, whether things are going well or not going the right way, he seems to handle it pretty well. Obviously, he's good technically and really quick. He has a good head on his shoulders and controls himself. He stays pretty even, which I think is an important quality for a goalie because the whole team is looking at you and if they see a little bit of instability, you don't know which way it's going to go."
Khabibulin was surprised to get a call from the Hawks last summer as a free agent.
"We got the call and it happened bang-bang," he said. "I was excited because it was a good place to go. I'm here to contribute as much as I can and whenever I get to play I'll try to play as best I can.
"Knowing half the team and having the same coach and managers and trainers made it an easy decision."
You never have to worry about Khabibulin being in shape. He a workout fanatic, which has allowed him to stay in the league this long.
Patrick Kane said Khabibulin was in the best shape of any 40-year-old he's seen.
"I don't know how many 40-year-olds he's seen," Khabibulin said with a laugh. "I feel if I don't keep doing this then there's a bunch of young guys behind me that are ready to kick me out of the league, so I have to do it, and actually like to do it."
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