Perhaps one of the most surprising stories of the early 2011-2012 NHL season is the recent success of Edmonton Oilers’ goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin. As many of us know, Khabibulin had a rough 2010-2011 season coming off of back surgery and posted a 10-32-4 record in 46 starts. As a result of his less-than-adequate performance, it was suspected that 25 year-old backup goaltender Devan Dubnyk would be moving his way up to the number one spot. Last season, Dubnyk was 12-13-8 with 2.71 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. He has proven that he is capable of stepping in and getting wins for his team, but he may have to get comfortable sitting on the bench if Khabibulin continues to stay hot. Since the start of this season, Khabibulin has stolen a point in every game that he has played and has a stellar record of 5-0-2. He is leading the league in goals against average and save percentage at 1.12 and .960, respectively.
Of course, one man can’t be solely responsible for an entire team’s success. The Oilers have a huge amount of young talent up front with Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and the 18 year-old rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who from now on will only be referred to as “The Nuge.” The offseason addition of veteran winger Ryan Smyth has proven to be a big help for the Oilers as he is second in team points. Leading the team, as well as all NHL rookies in points is The Nuge himself with 5 goals and 6 assists.
The Oilers finished the 2010-2011 season in dead last with a total of 62 points. To put that in perspective, the Vancouver Canucks finished first with 117 points, which for those of you who are mathematically challenged, is nearly double. For any team to have success, good goaltending is key. Just take last season’s Stanley Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins, for example. Not to take anything away from the many talented players on that team, but it is certainly arguable that the Bruins wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without Tim Thomas. Thomas not only won the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender in the league, but he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If the Oilers want their shot at redemption, Khabibulin will have to be their best player and prove that even at 38 years old, he is still capable of doing what he has done in the past. He is a former Olympian, multi-time all-star, Stanley Cup Champ with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, and at one point was one of the best goaltenders in the world. Something else worth noting is Khabibulin’s early success on the penalty kill. This season, he has stopped 26 of 27 shots while down a man, which translates to a .963 penalty kill save percentage. It is only expected that this number will decrease as the season progresses, but it goes to show that his recent success coupled with his veteran experience and presence will likely be a big asset to this young Oilers team.
Hot off a 5 game win streak, the Oilers are currently tied for first in the Western Conference with the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks. They are followed closely by the Los Angeles Kings, who they will battle tomorrow night at Staples Center at 7:30pm. Be sure to tune in.