Nikolai Khabibulin steps up for Edmonton Oilers

Via Jim Jamieson – The Province

With everybody expecting the Oilers’ young guns to be scoring their way out of trouble this season, not many saw the resurgence of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin leading the team to early season respectability.

The Oilers are right where they left off last season in terms of producing goals. A little worse, actually – they’ve got the worst goals per game average in the NHL (1.71), as opposed to ranking 28th last season when they finished last for the second straight year.

But it hasn’t mattered so far for the Oilers, who had a decent 3-2-2 record heading into Monday’s game here with Vancouver – thanks to Khabibulin, who boasted the top goals against average in the league (0.72).

Why the turnaround for the 38-year-old Russian goalie, who was so disappointing after Oilers GM Steve Tambellini signed signed him two seasons ago to a four-year deal that averages $3.75 million per season?

Turns out it’s a few things, not the least of which is the Oilers’ new-look defence, which features three new players with size who can box out opposing forwards and block shots: Andy Sutton (6-foot-6, 245 lbs.) Cory Potter (6-foot-3, 206 lbs.) and Cam Barker (6-foot-3, 220 lbs.). The new, improved play in the Oilers’ end has both Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk breathing easier.

“We’re more committed to defence and we’ve got more bigger bodies back there,” Khabibulin said before the Oilers faced off with the Canucks. “For the past four games I was able to find pucks pretty well and if I didn’t it seemed like it was blocked. It definitely helps in front of the net. Guys like (Andy) Sutton, he blocks tons of shots, he’s a big guy, from a goalie’s perspective it’s great to have a guy like that.”

Last season Khabibulin’s numbers were near career worst – 3.40 GAA and .890 save percentage – and things didn’t get any better when head coach Tom Renney chose to start last year’s back-up Dubnyk in the season opener. If Renney was looking for a response, he got one.

“It puts a little bit of pressure and I think healthy competition is good,” said Khabibulin, who’s surrendered just three goals in his first four games. “We’re getting along pretty well. He’s a good guy and easy to work with. In the end it benefits the team.”

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