While it’s awfully early in the season to get too excited about the play of any one player, one guy you have to think is doing especially well considering all things is Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. After an off-season filled with more questions about whether or not he would be going to jail for drunken driving rather than whether or not his injured back would hold up this year, you can’t help but think he might be a bit distracted.
Two games into the season, however, Khabibulin has answered the call after delivering stellar performances against Calgary and Florida, earning a shutout against the Flames on opening night and turning in some spectacular saves in a 3-2 win over Florida last night, including this beauty on Chris Higgins.
The Edmonton Journal’s Dan Barnes feels that credit for the Oilers solid start to the season should go to Khabibulin, because without him, the Oilers would be dealing with highly questionable goaltending on top of already iffy defense.
If they want to be a competitive team, Khabibulin is going to be called upon to play cleanup back there in the crease and everybody knows it. But good grief, the forwards and defencemen are going to have to actually show up for all three periods one of these nights. Their first 20 minutes against Florida evoked chilling memories of their defensive lapses from last year. And the one before. They were down 11-3 on the shot clock but deadlocked at zeros on the scoreboard thanks to Khabibulin’s glove hand and deft moves against a couple of Grade A chances.
Now, the goalie is a part of the team and is expected to do his part. I get that. But the Oilers were outshot 28-13 on the night and their skaters were often abysmal.
With Khabibulin back there, the saves have been getting made. Could the same be said of his backups and heirs to the starting throne Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk? After seeing how those two performed last season in Khabibulin’s absence the answer is a resounding “no.”
That said, Khabibulin likely can’t keep up this sort of frenetic level of play all season long. Getting tighter defense from the Oilers would go a long way towards helping him out, but then again, we knew the Oilers’ defense was going to be a major hangup this season anyhow. Until things start to break down there, the Oilers should keep making the most of Khabibulin’s stellar play while they can and perhaps spin that into a run at a playoff spot later in the year.