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Khabibulin off to best start of long career

by John Kreiser
The surprising Edmonton Oilers have gotten a lot of attention because of young stars like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. However, it's 38-year-old goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin who's been the biggest difference between the team that finished 30th in the standings in 2010-11 and the one that takes a Northwest Division-leading 9-4-2 mark into Friday's visit to Detroit.

Khabibulin will take the ice with a 7-0-2 record, a goals-against average of 0.98 and a save percentage of .964. His GAA after nine games is the lowest since the expansion era began 44 years ago. He has allowed just nine goals in nine games, and no more than two in any one contest.

At 38-years old, the numbers show Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is off to the best start of his NHL career. (Photo: Francois Lacasse/NHLI)
Khabibulin has won his last six games, his longest winning streak in his two-plus seasons with the Oilers and the most by an Edmonton goaltender since Dwayne Roloson won six straight games in November 2006. The last time Khabibulin had a run like this was in November-December 2008, when he won seven in a row while playing for Chicago.

Though Khabibulin came into this season with 316 career wins and a Stanley Cup (with Tampa Bay in 2004), to say his performance so far this season came out of nowhere would be understating the case.

On the way to final totals of 10-32-4 with a 3.40 GAA and .890 save percentage last season, Khabibulin was 3-5-1 in his first nine games with a 3.00 GAA and a save percentage of .907. A season earlier, he was 5-3-1 after nine games, with a .902 save percentage. Even in 2003-04, his best season statistically and one that ended with him hoisting the Cup, he was 7-1-1 after nine games with a 1.98 GAA and .922 save percentage.

Nightmare on Causeway Street -- Improved or not, the Oilers continue to find it almost impossible to win in Boston, at least during the regular season.

Thursday's 6-3 loss kept the Oilers winless in the Hub of Hockey since a 6-0 win Nov. 7, 1996. Since then, Edmonton is 0-6-1-1, including five consecutive regulation losses. The Oilers have scored just nine goals in the eight games.

The Oilers have made just 33 regular-season visits to Boston since entering the NHL in 1979; they've won just six times, going 6-23-3-1.

However, their problems in Boston never have been in evidence at playoff time. The Oilers have played five postseason games in Boston -- two in the 1988 Stanley Cup Final and three in the 1990 Final. They won four, with the other one (Game 4 in 1988) suspended late in the second period with the score tied 3-3 when the power failed at the old Boston Garden.

Unlucky 13 -- While the Oilers can’t win in Boston, the Phoenix Coyotes can't seem to beat the Montreal Canadiens anywhere.

The Canadiens extended their unbeaten streak against the Coyotes to 13 games (10 wins, 3 ties) with a 3-2 overtime victory in the desert Thursday. The Coyotes have never beaten the Canadiens at Arena, haven't beaten them anywhere since a 4-2 win at America West Arena in Phoenix on Dec. 9, 1998 and must be happy they don't go to Montreal this season, since they haven't won there since a 5-4 overtime victory Oct. 28, 1996 -- one of only three wins by the franchise in its 32 visits.

Whether in Winnipeg or Phoenix, the Coyotes never have fared well against the Canadiens, no matter where they've played. They are 2-10-4-2 in 18 meetings since the franchise moved from Winnipeg and 12-41-9-2 overall.

Lucky 14 -- Five weeks into the season, three teams have found themselves limited to 14 shots on goal in a game -- but all three of them won the game.

Edmonton became the third 14-shot winner Wednesday, when the Oilers won 3-1 in Montreal. The others were the New York Islanders (2-1 vs. Minnesota on Oct. 10) and Nashville (3-0 at Calgary on Oct. 22).

Road warrior -- The Florida Panthers might want to think about giving Jose Theodore the majority of his starts away from home.

Jose Theodore
Goalie - FLA
RECORD: 6-2-2
GAA: 2.39 | SVP: 0.922
Theodore stopped 25 of 27 shots Thursday in Florida's 5-2 win at Winnipeg, giving him a 5-1-0 record in his six starts on the road, with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. At home, he's won just once (1-1-2) in five starts, with a 2.64 GAA and .911 save percentage.

The 35-year-old's home-road split has followed him from Minnesota, where he played last season. Theodore was 12-7-2 with a 2.41 GAA and .925 save percentage on the road, but just 3-4-1 with a 3.63 GAA and .890 save percentage at home.

PK problems -- It's been a tough start for the Columbus Blue Jackets -- especially on the road, where they have yet to win a game this season. One big reason for their difficulties away from home is their inability to kill penalties.

While losing all seven games away from Nationwide Arena this season, the Jackets have allowed opponents to score on 11 of 28 power plays. Columbus' 60.7-percent success rate on the penalty kill is more than 11 percentage points below 29th place Toronto (71.9) -- and 40 points below League-leading Calgary (18-for-19, 94.7 percent).

Though Columbus is 14th at home (83.3 percent), the Jackets' problems on the road have left them 30th overall on the penalty kill at 71.2 percent. No team in the last decade has been below 74 percent for a complete season.
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