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Khabibulin back in net for Edmonton

by Eric Gilmore
SAN JOSE – After getting a week off to rest, Edmonton Oilers goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin will go back to work Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks.

Oilers coach Tom Renney didn’t make it official, but Khabibulin was the first goaltender off the ice Saturday morning from the Oilers’ optional skate at HP Pavilion, while backup Devan Dubnyk continued working.

“I feel pretty good, I feel rested,” Khabibulin said.

Khabibulin didn’t play in the Oilers’ 3-0 loss last week to Calgary or their 4-2 loss Thursday night to Phoenix. He has also missed a few recent practices. His last start was on Dec. 9, a 4-1 win over Colorado, when he stopped 28 of 29 shots.

“Just a little bit of rest,” Khabibulin said of his time off. “I was ready to play in Phoenix, but it was Tom’s decision not to. I don’t go into that. He decides who’s playing.”

Khabibulin, who turns 39 next month, is having a stellar season. He ranks fifth in the NHL with a 1.95 goals against average, and he has a .933 save percentage to go with a 10-6-3 record. He’ll face a Sharks team that has been struggling but rallied from a 4-2 third period deficit to beat Colorado 5-4 on Thursday night at the Shark Tank.

“They have a lot of firepower, that team,” Khabibulin  said.  “Probably one of the top teams in the conference – it’s going to be a good test for us.”

Sharks coach Todd McLellan has been juggling his lines, trying to find some combinations that will ignite his offense. Against Colorado he dropped Patrick Marleau to the second line with center Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe. Torrey Mitchell jumped from the third line to take Marleau’s spot on the top line with center Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Martin Havlat dropped from the second to the third and skated with center Michal Handzus and Jamie McGinn. The fourth line of center Andrew Desjardins and wings Andrew Murray and Brad Winchester remained intact.

Those four lines earned another shot, McLellan said.

“We’ve been flipping cards around for quite a while. Again, you’ve got to go with what you saw in the third period and the effort that certain individuals gave you with others,” McLellan said after his team’s optional skate. “I liked what I saw in that situation. Can they repeat it? Can they get the job done again tonight? If they can, then we’ve found something. If they can’t, then we’ll keep moving pieces around until we do.”

Couture and Clowe each scored a goal against Colorado, and Marleau had an assist.

“We need to score goals,” Couture said. “There’s too much talent in this room to get shut out or score only one or two goals every night. We need to find some chemistry with our linemates. Playing with [Marleau] and [Clowe], Patty’s got the speed, the quickness on the shot. Clowie holds onto pucks, protects them well. All three of us had some chemistry last game. So we need to keep that going.”

The Sharks’ problems go well beyond finding the right line combinations. Their penalty kill ranks 29th in the NHL, and their typically dangerous power play ranks in a tie for 12th.

“Penalty kill and power play are concerns for us right now,” McLellan said. “I think we lost 2-1 to (Minnesota), 1-0 in St. Louis, overtime goal to Chicago and a shootout to Colorado. Your power play or penalty kill in that situation can make a huge, huge difference, and it didn’t in those games. That’s the difference between winning and losing. Penalty kill has a huge, huge factor in our games right now.

“We’ve changed some things systematically and it’s helped a little bit. We’ll rotate players we use in different pairs around a little bit more now to try and change that also, but some of it’s just confidence. When that situation comes you’ve got to believe that you can get the job done from the goaltender though the D men and out to the forwards. We have the proper personnel. It’s a matter of getting it done.”

McLellan said the Sharks regained some but not all of their confidence Thursday night with their third-period comeback.

“For me, confidence is feeling good about yourself first, about the team and the game that you’re playing,” McLellan said. “We don’t have enough players that can honestly say that now. We’re gaining more back. I would say that we’re coming out of it. We’re gaining more back, so as we build on that a little bit more, we should feel better about ourselves and our game should improve.”

The Sharks are 3-5-2 in their past 10 games. After a fast start, the Oilers have hit a slump, too, going 3-6-1 with two straight losses. They were outshot 42-20 by Phoenix on Thursday night, and there’s a decided sense of urgency approaching Saturday night’s game.

“Yeah, definitely,” Edmonton rookie center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “We definitely need that. We need to get back on track here, so I think we’re going to be intense. Tonight’s a huge game for us.”

The Oilers are expected to shake up their line combinations, too, with Taylor Hall returning to the top line with Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

“We have some plans to get the young line back together and move some people around so we can actually create a little bit more and also have a physical component that helps with the energy level in general,” Renney told the Edmonton Journal.

Here’s how the lineups could look like Saturday night:


Torrey MitchellJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Ryane CloweLogan CouturePatrick Marleau
Jamie McGinnMichal HandzusMartin Havlat
Brad WinchesterAndrew DesjardinsAndrew Murray

Dan BoyleMarc-Edouard Vlasic
Jason DemersBrent Burns
Colin WhiteJustin Braun

Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss


Taylor HallRyan Nugent-HopkinsJordan Eberle
Ryan SmithSam GagnerAles Hemsky
Eric BelangerShawn HorcoffRyan Jones
Ben EagerAnton LanderDarcy Hordichuk

Ladislav SmidTom Gilbert
Ryan WhitneyJeff Petry
Theo PeckhamCorey Potter

Nikolai Khabibulin
Devan Dubnyk
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