Not Another Sim Hockey League

Streaky Sabres Lean on The Bulin Wall

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Nikolai Khabibulin tries to focus on the puck as an opponent auditions for the circus in front of him.

Buffalo, NY (AP) - When the previous season finished, Nikolai Khabibulin returned to his homeland of Russia, hiding behind sunglasses and hats that acted like his goalie mask. They protected him from the outside world as he fired up the cocktails.

"The only thing I remember was how much I wanted to forget," said the Buffalo Sabre netminder about his most recent offseason.

Although there were many reasons for his team's disappointing play, The Bulin Wall (as he's nicknamed) was the most prominent one. A year after leading the squad to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Buffalo goaltender had a terrible season despite playing behind the best blueline corpse of his career. The subpar showing made the team completely miss the playoffs and led to a long summer of reflection on how it all went wrong.

"I decided I wasn't going to change a single thing," said The Bulin Wall. "If I lose again playing the way I play, then maybe I'm just a bad goalie."

There have been very few people calling him a bad goalie these days. Halfway through Season 7 of NASHL, Khabibulin has put up career highs in GAA and Sv%, placing himself right in the thick of the Vezina Trophy race. His stellar play has the Sabres in similar contention for hardware, currently in the sixth seed of the Eastern Conference and only three points off the division-leading Boston Bruins. 

Buffalo has called upon The Bulin Wall for twenty straight starts and needed him to be sharp in almost all of them. They hit the midway point of the year leading the league in fewest goals against, largely thanks to their starting netminder. The offence has been good but not great, especailly ever since the goals dried up for team captain Miroslav Satan. The Slovak winger was leading the league in goals for a while before a 16-game goalless drought (that is ongoing) has put him and his team's offence down the rankings. 

"I consider myself a patient man," said Satan after another goalless game, this time against the Montreal Canadiens, "but I've been standing in line for a goal for a long, long time."

Thankfully, the rest of his game has not let up as Satan is a regular on the league's fifth-best penalty kill and is racking up the assists to remain Buffalo's co-leader in points with 36. But no matter who is scoring the goals, Khabibulin remains upbeat as long as the puck stays out of his own net.

"Sometimes I wish I didn't have to wear a mask," said the Vezina contender.

"I have a really handsome smile, and I've been looking a lot more handsome lately."

by: Gary Mok