Just before the regular season started, coach Tom Renney talked about which player could have the most impact for the Edmonton Oilers this season. He was hoping for another spirited showing from forward Taylor Hall but he was counting on a bounce-back effort from goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.
That was critical, said Renney. "With good goaltending, the confidence spreads from there," explained the Oilers' head man. "We need Nik to be the goalie he can be."
On that count, Khabibulin has delivered in stingy Bulin Wall-like fashion. Backed by his spectacular play, the Oilers have won five games in a row and are tied for top spot in the NHL's Western Conference with the Dallas Stars.
Edmonton's most recent victory came Sunday night against the visiting St. Louis Blues. Khabibulin made a handful of game-altering stops in a 4-2 final making it only the second time this season he has allowed two goals over three periods. Little wonder that his 1.12 goals against average and .960 save percentage lead the NHL.
"We're doing all the little things that make a difference," Ryan Smyth said after scoring twice in the St. Louis game. "Our goaltending has been giving us a chance in every night."
Aside from Renney and the Oilers, not many in the NHL were thinking Khabibulin was poised for a banner year. His age (38) was one factor. His health another. (He had surgery for a herniated disk in his back in January.) Then there was the whole Khabibulin-goes-to-jail issue and how that would affect him.
During the off-season, after pleading guilty to an extreme DUI and excessive speeding in 2010, Khabibulin did half his 30-day sentence under house arrest with the other half served in Arizona's fabled Tent City facility. (So named because prisoners are housed in U.S. Army tents.) It was there, in oppressive heat, that Khabibulin had time to think about what kind of season he wanted to have when rejoined the Oilers.
Turned out he wanted to do more than regain the starter's role. He wanted to recapture lost glory, and that's not only helped Edmonton's forwards and defence; it's benefited backup goalie Devan Dubnyk.
"The way Khabby's played the last little while it made it that much more important that I come in and give the team the same effort he's given," Dubnyk told the Edmonton Journal.
The Oilers are now off on a six-game road swing that will determine just how far they've come from their two-year run of last-place finishes. There's talk injured forward Ales Hemsky, out with a shoulder problem, could be back be for Thursday's game in Los Angeles against the Kings.