Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin expected to start season with Chicago

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BENSENVILLE, Ill. - Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is expected to start the regular season with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 35-year-old Khabibulin had seemed destined to be sent to the minors, traded or opt to play in his native Russia by the time the Blackhawks open their regular season Friday night in New York against the Rangers.

But on Tuesday, Khabibulin was on Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon's final roster heading into the regular season.

NHL teams must submit rosters to the league by 3 p.m. ET Wednesday.

The goalie, who did not appear in any of Chicago's eight pre-season games, is entering the final year of a four-year contract that is set to pay him US$6.75 million this season.

Khabibulin practised with the Blackhawks at the team's suburban Chicago facility on Tuesday after not being on the ice for a session on Saturday. The Blackhawks played their final exhibition game on Sunday and didn't practice on Monday.

Chicago signed free-agent goalie Cristobal Huet to a US$22.45-million, four-year deal on July 1. Tallon and Blackhawks coach Denis Savard maintained they planned to start the season with the "luxury" of two No. 1 goalies.

"The best goaltender is going to play," Tallon said. "Nick knows that and I know that."

"Nick is with us," Savard said. "It's going to be day-by-day for both goaltenders. Habby and Dale had a great talk and we're happy to have him."

Khabibulin left the Blackhawks practice facility on Tuesday and didn't talk to reporters.

Last week, Khabibulin cleared waivers, giving the Blackhawks the option of sending him to Rockford of the American Hockey League. Tallon confirmed that he talked to other teams about trading Khabibulin, but none of the discussions became serious.

Another option was for Khabibulin to play in Russia. If Khabibulin is traded or heads overseas, his $6.75 million salary no longer would count toward Chicago's salary cap.

Trading Khabibulin remains a possibility.

"As we move on, we have a lot of assets," Tallon said. "We'll do whatever is right for the Chicago Blackhawks."

In the interim, Savard isn't worried about Khabibulin's lack of pre-season playing time.

The goalie might be pressed into action soon, as the Blackhawks open the season with three games in four nights.

"Habby has been around the horn," Savard said. "He's been a great goalie."

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