Commentary

Oilers' Khabibulin erases all doubt

Updated: February 10, 2013, 2:59 AM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN The Magazine

Nikolai KhabibulinDave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesNikolai Khabibulin made 28 saves in his first start of the season and was perfect during even strength.

DETROIT -- It doesn't matter that he's played over 800 career NHL games in the regular season and playoffs. Or that he's played under the highest of pressure in the Stanley Cup finals and Olympics.

If you go 10 months without playing a single game as a starting goalie, the questions creep in. Especially if you're 40 years old, like Nikolai Khabibulin.

On Friday, Khabibulin got word he'd be making his first start of the season on Saturday afternoon against the Red Wings and their two offensive stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. That's challenging enough.

Considering he hadn't played since March 30 or won a game since Feb. 11 of last year, it was even tougher.

The win will have to wait, but the doubt as to whether or not he can be effective this season is gone. Khabibulin's 28 saves in a 2-1 loss to the Red Wings proved he can be a contributor this year for the Oilers. The only two Red Wings goals came on the power play, and he was a perfect 23-for-23 during even strength.

"I felt better than I thought I would," Khabibulin said afterwards.

He had a couple of concerns entering the game. The first was wondering how quickly things would click after sitting for so long. That's natural.

The plan, especially early, was to simplify his game, make the saves he had to and see what happened with the rest. But a big glove save on Datsyuk along with his kick save on a great scoring chance from Damien Brunner showed he could do more than the minimum.

The other concern was just how his body would respond to his first real action since April hip surgery.

"Physically I felt great," Khabibulin said. "That was kind of a question mark for me. I didn't have any issues."

Khabibulin said he has no idea how future starts between him and No. 1 goalie Devan Dubnyk will be divided. His goal was to start one game and perform well enough to get consideration for another. Mission accomplished, although Dubnyk doesn't look like he'll make it easy to relinquish playing time.

He has been a bright spot for the Oilers this season, with a 4-3-3 record, 2.60 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. And he's enjoyed the heavy workload this season.

"It's been a lot of fun to have the opportunity to play as many games as I've had, just throughout the end of last season and the start of this one," Dubnyk told ESPN The Magazine after the game. "I feel pretty good about my game and still feel good about continuing to get better as well."

Khabibulin's presence last season allowed the Oilers to ease Dubnyk into a starting role, one that he seized while the veteran rehabbed his way back to health. It also gave the 26-year-old Dubnyk a chance to watch how a veteran goalie approaches the game.

He remembers games early on in his career where Khabibulin was playing on the road in the loudest arenas and his calm demeanor was no different than at practice. Dubnyk is trying to work that calm consistency into his approach.

"That's something I watched him do and tried to emulate that myself," Dubnyk said. "He's been great to me. It just makes it so much easier when you can have a partnership where both guys truly, genuinely want the guy to do well when they're in there. It makes it more fun."

At the rate the Oilers have been scoring lately, they're going to need both goalies if they hope to make the playoffs. Even the potent power play, which is one of the league's five best, didn't capitalize on key opportunities, including a third-period 5-on-3 against Detroit.

Edmonton continued its struggles at even strength and only Florida (0.50 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio) is preventing the Oilers (0.53) from being the league's worst 5-on-5 team.

Now, it's looking like Dubnyk has help, which becomes even more important when the Oilers begin their nine-game road trip at the end of the month.

Fellow 40-year-old Chris Osgood watched Khabibulin's return to NHL on Saturday as the Red Wings' goaltending development coach. He was impressed but not surprised.

"He's a good goalie. He's been good his whole career," Osgood said following the game. "He gives them a solid 1-2 punch. As a 40-year-old veteran guy, I'm sure at the trade deadline if he's not used, there will be a lot of teams lined up to try and get him."