EDMONTON -- The rebuilding Edmonton Oilers know that one of the things they have to accomplish in order to climb back into relevance and contention in the Western Conference is beating the archrival Calgary Flames.
Thursday night at Rexall Place was as good a time as any to start -- and the Oilers, losers of seven straight-regular season meetings with Calgary in the Battle of Alberta -- did just that, opening their 2010-11 season with a 4-0 convincing win over the Flames.
Goals by Gilbert Brule, Jordan Eberle, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff and a 37-save performance by Nikolai Khabibulin, making his first regular-season appearance in 11 months after back surgery, were more than enough to snap Edmonton's string of futility against the Flames -- a stretch that included the first season sweep in series history in 2009-10.
"The fans came to see a glimpse of the future and they got it," new captain Shawn Horcoff said after the Oilers delighted the sellout crowd of 16,839 at Rexall Place by beating the Flames for the first time since April 10, 2009. "I can't think of another thing you could have added to make it a better scenario.
"It was impressive. The effort was there tonight. That's our focus here. We're building toward something and the only way to do that is through effort and work. "
With so much focus on rookies Eberle, Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi as the Oilers try to bounce back from a 30th-place finish, the 37-year-old Khabibulin played the part of unlikely hero in the opener.
Khabibulin hadn't started a regular-season game since last Nov. 16 because of a herniated disc in his back and surgery to repair it, but he flat-out one-upped Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff to earn the 42nd shutout of his NHL career.
Khabibulin played down his performance
"It was one game," he shrugged. "Obviously, it's nice to start that way. I don't think I felt great in the first period.
"My legs kind of felt heavy, but then I got into it a little bit. I thought we played a game as good as we could play. We skated pretty well and limited their chances, I think. The young kids played good."
Aided by four power plays, the Oilers had the building jumping as they dominated the opening 20 minutes. They outshot the Flames 19-9, but Brule put the only puck behind Kiprusoff that counted, giving the Oilers a 1-0 lead 9:04 into the game.
That proved to be enough, thanks to Khabibulin.
"Unbelievable," Eberle said of Khabibulin. "It was amazing. You feel so comfortable with him back there. You can afford to give up a shot and you just know it's not going to go in."
Dustin Penner poked a puck past Kiprusoff on a partial breakaway, but had the goal called off by referee Ian Walsh, who saw the play as a case of goaltender interference rather than a 2-0 Oilers lead.
The Flames, 7-0-0 in the preseason, had it all their way in the second period, outshooting the Oilers 18-7, but Khabibulin was flawless. A nail-biter turned into a waltz when Eberle scored a brilliant shorthanded goal and Hemsky and Horcoff added goals in the first four minutes of the third period.
"It was one of the nicer goals I've scored for sure," said Eberle, the Oilers' top pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. "As of right now, it's one of the more special ones I've had.
"We're up 1-0 and we had to keep the lead. It just seems to bring the best out in me. I want to be on the ice and be that guy who puts the puck in the net."
After a perfect preseason, it was not the kind of start the Flames had in mind as they try to return to the playoffs.
"We didn't have a very good start at all," defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "We played to all of their strengths. We wanted to keep them off the power play because they have three really strong lines up front. And we thought we could exploit a weakness by going after their defensemen. But we didn't start doing any of that until the second period."
This was the teams' third meeting in the last seven days, counting a pair of Calgary wins in the preseason, so this game had plenty of edge and ill will to it.
Ryan Jones, inserted onto the fourth line in place of Zack Stortini, engaged Stefan Meyer in a spirited scrap six minutes into the game. Tim Jackman squared off with Theo Peckham and Colin Fraser and Brett Sutter doffed the gloves in the second period.
Oilers heavyweight Steve MacIntyre put an exclamation point on the win and the fisticuffs, dropping Calgary tough guy Raitis Ivanans with a big right hand late in the third period.
"Everybody is throwing to hit. We're not throwing to play patty-cake," Macintyre said. "You don't want to see anybody get hurt, but by the same token you're there for your teammates. You're there to do a job."
While the Oilers announced Horcoff as the 13th captain in franchise history Wednesday, they didn't unveil their assistant captains until the team took the ice for the pre-game skate. Ryan Whitney and Ales Hemsky are wearing the "A" this season.