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Monday, October 11, 2010
5 Things: Khabby, rookies, Pens' poor start

By Scott Burnside

Here are 5 things to ponder to start your hockey week:

1. Goalie questions

Less than a week into the NHL season, interesting goaltending issues are already cropping up around the league. The Atlanta Thrashers insist they aren't in the market for another goaltender after Ondrej Pavelec collapsed from what the team said Monday was a "neurocardiogenic syncope episode" and subsequent mild concussion in the Thrashers' first game of the season. A battery of tests indicated there are no long-term medical issues, and the team expects him back at some point, negating the need to find another experienced netminder. The Thrashers called up Drew MacIntyre to back up Chris Mason and will take Peter Mannino, another minor league netminder, on their West Coast trip this week.

Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators don't expect netminder Pekka Rinne to miss much, if any, time after being replaced in their season-opening win over Anaheim. Rookie Anders Lindback, 22, will get his first NHL start if Rinne isn't ready to go, but things don't look that serious, which is good for Predators fans.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has a nice dilemma in Philadelphia with both rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and veteran Brian Boucher turning in solid outings in the team's 1-0-1 start to the season. Bobrovsky got the win on the night the Penguins opened their new building, but kudos to Laviolette for going back to Boucher, who was a bit miffed at not getting the opening night start. Who goes next? Who knows. But with Michael Leighton needing back surgery, the Flyers couldn't have hoped for a better start in net.

2. Ah, the kids

Somehow, we think we'll be revisiting this issue throughout the season, but it is interesting to see the immediate impact of fresh-faced youngsters around the NHL.

Carolina's Jeff Skinner was terrific in the Canes' twin wins in Helsinki last week. (He scored the shootout winner in the second game and added an assist.) Barring a major change in the team's mindset, Skinner will remain with the big club for the entire season instead of returning to junior before he plays his 10th game (the demarcation point for using up a year of a player's entry-level contract and starting the clock ticking toward free agency).

In Edmonton, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have combined for a goal and two assists in the Oilers' opening two wins, while fellow rookie also Magnus Paajarvi impressed. Meanwhile, the Rangers got a boost from center Derek Stepan in his first NHL game as the rookie notched three goals in a 6-3 win over Buffalo. The Rangers' depth down the middle has been a talking point throughout training camp, and Stepan's performance bodes well for New York going forward.

Finally, the Chicago Blackhawks will be looking to youngsters to fill the void after jettisoning a significant number of regulars from last season's Cup-winning roster. So far, rookie Bryan Bickell (two goals) is doing his part to help the Hawks' attack, even if Chicago is off to an 0-1-1 start.

3. Khabibulin's uncertain future

Got to hand it to Edmonton netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who has somehow managed to put aside the thought of potentially spending time in an Arizona jail to deliver back-to-back virtuoso performances and turning aside 63 of 65 shots for the 2-0-0 Oilers.

But Khabibulin's uncertain future is likely unsettling to both the goalie and the Oilers. When Khabibulin's appeal of his sentence for drunken-driving charges in the Phoenix area is finally heard (the process could take months), the 37-year-old could spend some time in jail (up to 30 days). Following his conviction on a number of alcohol-related charges, the initial sentence was 30 days. Khabibulin immediately appealed, a strategy that seemed to catch the Oilers off guard in the offseason. Now, he's back playing the way he did at the start of last season before a back injury shelved him for most of the campaign.

There may also be a supplementary suspension handed down by the league once the legal proceedings are settled. Given the level of drunkenness involved -- Khabibulin's blood-alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit -- it wouldn't be surprising if the league tacked on a game or two after the netminder's legal penalty is completed.

4. Staal-ed?

No doubt Pittsburgh fans are pining for a return to crumbling Mellon Arena after the Penguins dropped two straight in their brand-new barn, Consol Energy Center. But the wins will come. The team is too good for them not to. Still, the double 3-2 losses to Philadelphia and Montreal highlight one basic truth about the Penguins: With Jordan Staal in the lineup, they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender; without him, they are, well, something less.

Staal is continuing to rehab a severed tendon in his foot, an injury he suffered early in the Penguins' second-round playoff series against Montreal during the spring. There is essentially no timetable for his return, which means the Penguins will be looking for someone to step into the breach when it comes to things like penalty killing. But the bottom line is, when Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are healthy, regardless of how coach Bylsma lines them up, the three big centers represent a unique and formidable cast of characters who are difficult, if not impossible, to shut down entirely.

In the 2009 Stanley Cup finals, Staal was the best player on the ice as the series wound down. The Pens floundered when he was not at the top of his game against Montreal this past spring. Coincidence? Not when you consider how the Pens have started this season without the big man from Thunder Bay, Ontario.

5. Stars' start

Last season, we consistently hammered the Dallas Stars for their, well, lack of consistency. At no point during their 82 regular-season games did they win three straight times, which contributed mightily to the team missing the playoffs for the second straight season. This season, however, with veterans Mike Modano in Detroit and Marty Turco in Chicago and Jere Lehtinen in limbo, the Stars are off to a 2-0-0 start and could hit that magic "three in a row" mark Thursday, when they entertain Detroit for their home opener.

Now, the wins over New Jersey and the New York Islanders weren't necessarily pretty, but goalie Kari Lehtonen shook off a couple of soft goals against the Devils to help the Stars overcome some sloppy play and keep the ship pointed in the right direction.