PHILADELPHIA -- Apparently, early reports about the fall of the "Bulin Wall" were greatly exaggerated.
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who came under intense media scrutiny after having his first tough outing in more than a month, returned to near-perfect form in his club's vital 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final at a packed Wachovia Center.
"I thought Nik was rock solid," said emotional Lightning coach John Tortorella, who did a masterful (Scotty Bowman, Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock-like) job of taking the media spotlight off his suddenly embattled goalie by initiating a war of words with Flyers counterpart Ken Hitchcock and Philly GM Bob Clarke between Games 2 and 3. "He (Khabibulin) looked very confident and solid."
Khabibulin was particularly solid in the second period when the Flyers -- down 2-0 -- took the play to the Lightning. With captain Keith Primeau leading the charge, the Flyers fired 13 shots at Khabibulin. And that doesn't include two shots, by Bronco Radivojevic and Radovan Somik, that rang off the post.
"I thought the most important part of the game was handling their surge in the second period," Tortorella said. "I thought Nik was really composed. That was the key."
For his part, Khabibulin wasn't looking over his shoulder after allowing four goals on 12 shots before being pulled in the second period of Game 2.
"I just tried to not think about the last game," said Khabibulin, who was named the game's first star with 24 saves. "I tried to feel good about myself. I just tried to come out and do the best I could."
Tortorella says he doesn't understand why anyone, specifically the media, would question his goalie's resolve or resiliency. Fairly or unfairly, though, goaltenders are judged on whether or not they can etch their names into Lord Stanley's silver Cup. And, until a goalie does it, there will be those who doubt. Even a goaltender with as spectacular a resume as Dominik Hasek (six Vezina trophies and two Hart trophies) needed Stanley Cup vindication to cement his standing in history.
So, until Khabibulin can raise the championship chalice over his head, there will questions. This spring, he has answered many of those inquires with his superb play (1.31 GAA; .951 save percentage) in the first three rounds. He tossed in his first clunker in Game 2 of the conference final and rebounded like a champ in Game 3 -- on the road, in a hostile environment, against a hardened, veteran team. He'll look to carry that good feeling into Saturday's critical Game 4.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the rink, the "Bobby Barrier" seems to have sprung a leak. Playoff novice Robert Esche, who bested Cup winners Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour in the first two rounds, now will face the same challenge in Game 4 that Khabibulin stared down in Game 3. Esche must rebound from his first bad game of the postseason.
Nicknamed "Chico" because his last name resembles that of former goalie Glenn "Chico" Resch, Esche fanned on Cory Stillman's seemingly harmless wrist shot from the right wing sideboards at the 12:56 mark of the first period to put his team in a 1-0 hole. Less than three minutes later, he wasn't much better allowing Ruslan Fedotenko's power-play wrister to slip past him.
Afterward, the bearded goaltender wasn't backing away from the facts.
"It was just a bad goal by me," said Esche, referring to Stillman's stunner. "It's something I'm not happy with. When you give up a goal like that early in the hockey game, it kind of takes the wind out of everybody's sails."
Hitchcock, who has displayed a great deal of confidence in Esche throughout the season, figures his goalie will welcome the opportunity to get back on track
"It's new ground for him," Hitchcock admitted. "But, he's a really competitive guy. He's disappointed, but this is a new challenge for him in his competitive life. I think, knowing his character and knowing the way he competes, he'll step up and play very, very well."
Esche is confident that he can come up with a big effort in a must-win situation on Saturday.
"I think I'm mentally and physically strong as I've ever been," Esche said. "I've prepared all year for this. I feel great. I still have a lot of confidence and that's the way I'm looking at the next game."
Esche can start by tightening up his glove side. The Lightning seemed to target Esche's glove, scoring three of their four goals over his big catching mitt. Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier, who beat Esche with a laser beam of a wrist shot over his glove hand on a breakaway early in the third period, says he's been practicing that shot. Usually, in those situations, Lecavalier likes to use his deft stick handling to outmaneuver a goalie. Against Esche, he says it's best to shoot.
On Saturday, the Lightning's sure-handed snipers again will be looking to chip away at Esche's confidence. With the 'Bulin Wall' fortified by a strong performance in Game 3, Esche quickly must patch the holes in his game or face playoff demolition.
NOTES: Lightning defenseman Stan Neckar made his playoff debut, replacing the injured Brad Lukowich who's out with an "upper body" injury. Neckar took Lukowich's place alongside defender Dan Boyle, logging 16:56 of ice time. Under the circumstances, not having played in more than a month, he did a nice job, finishing the evening at plus-2. Neckar is the eighth defenseman on the club's depth chart.
In this postseason, the first goal has been vital to a team's success or failure. The team scoring the first goal has won 58 of 77 playoff games through May 14. The team scoring the first goal has won each of the six conference final games. The Flyers have scored the first goal in 11 of their 14 postseason games. They are 0-3 when they don't get on the board first.