Channeling Tony-O

With less than three minutes to play on Wednesday, Alexander Semin was going to end a shutout bid by Nikolai Khabibulin, making his first start after a back injury sidelined him for nearly a month.

Instead, Khabibulin finally made the kind of highlight-reel save that may justify his signing the richest contract in franchise history three seasons ago.

It seemed only fitting then that “The ‘Bulin Wall’” was channeling “Tony-O”.

After honoring the greatest goaltender in Chicago Blackhawks history, they got 25 saves from Khabibulin in a 5-0 win over Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

Before the game, the Blackhawks continued to mend fences with their past stars by anointing them as team ambassadors. Earlier this month, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita returned to the fold.

Tonight, it was Tony Esposito.

A pre-game ceremony included an appearance by older brother and fellow Hall of Famer Phil, but the chants throughout the crowd were for Tony-O, still revered in the Windy City.

A video montage of his career showed that when he broke into the league in 1969, Esposito recorded 15 shutouts – a record that still stands – en route to winning the Calder and Vezina trophies. More video clips had Tony-O showing off his butterfly style of goaltending, and briefly showing younger generations the art of the skate save.

Now 64, Esposito said the future is looking bright in Chicago, though it likely will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

"It's an honor to be here with the new, young vibrant Hawks. I know they're going to get better and we're all going to fill this building,” said Tony Esposito, Chicago’s all-time leader with 418 regular-season wins and 74 shutouts over a 15-year career that ended in 1984.

It took just 87 seconds on Wednesday for Chicago to take the lead on Jason Williams’ goal. Jonathan Toews, Yanic Perreault and Patrick Sharp also scored in the first period, and Rene Bourque converted a breakaway in the second.

After that, it was all No. 39 – and looking a whole lot like No. 35.

With 2:53 to play and Khabibulin out of position, Semin unleashed a blast from the right face-off circle toward the open net. Khabibulin dove back to his left and picked the puck off like a third baseman taking away an extra-base hit, touching off chants of “Khabi!” with some “Tony!” mixed in from the sellout crowd of 20,942.

“When we have a ceremony like this, it’s nice to win a game,” Khabibulin said. “Even better that it was Tony and even better that it was a shutout.”

Following the NHL lockout, Khabibulin signed a four-year, $27 million contract after helping lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004. Heading into play against the Caps, Khabibulin was 60-70-16 with a goals-against average just under 3 and only two shutouts in two-plus seasons.

Chicago’s possible playoff confidence also may be bolstered by having kept Ovechkin off the scoresheet. The league-leader with 58 goals and 102 points, Ovechkin was bidding to become the first with 60 tallies in a season since Mario Lemieux (69) and Jaromir Jagr (62) did it for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.

Instead, he managed just two shots and one minor penalty in 17:53.

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