Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin returns to the site of his greatest triumph in Tampa Bay

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TAMPA, Fla. — A longtime reporter from the Tampa Bay area gave Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin a once-over and told him that he looked leaner after all these years.

“I have to be,” Khabibulin said before facing his old team tonight at Tampa Bay Times Forum. “I have to keep up with the young guys.”

It’s been nearly a decade since Khabibulin backstopped the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup following the 2003-04 season, his last of three full seasons here with the team. But as it was the franchise’s lone championship, the memories are still fresh.

“His time here, he was just the backbone of our team,” said Lightning captain Martin St. Louis, the only player still on the roster from that team. “Without Khabby, I don’t think we’re celebrating a Stanley Cup. … Khabby was everything to this team. I remember when we first got him, I couldn’t believe how good he was — in practice, just fighting for every puck. It was tough to score on him. He made us better.”

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville knew he wanted to get Khabibulin — who only played in one of the team’s first nine games —on the ice during this week’s trip to Florida, and it was a no-brainer to give him the nod in the building in which he won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Calgary Flames 2-1.

Remarkably, it’ll be just the second time he’s played at the Forum since leaving the Lightning.

“This is where it all happened,” Khabibulin said. “I like the fans here and I had such a great experience here.”

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