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Khabibulin shines again as Oilers beat Habs

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL – The Edmonton Oilers appear to have found a winning formula, and it goes by the name of Nikolai Khabibulin.

Khabibulin made 28 saves Tuesday night to lead the Oilers to a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.

The 38-year-old goaltender improved his record to 7-0-2 -– just three shy of his 2010-11 season win total -– and his save percentage to .964. His League-leading goals against average actually remained consistent at 0.98 on the season, but Tuesday’s win still was enough to solidify him -- even more than the  baby-faced assassins up to --, as the primary reason the Oilers (9-3-2) sit atop the Northwest Division standings.

It was the ninth time in 14 games this season that the Oilers allowed one goal or fewer.

"Great goaltending gave us a chance," said Oilers veteran Ryan Smyth, who took over the team lead with his seventh goal on an empty-netter in the final minute. "(Khabibulin) has been playing superb all year and we played tight in the first period and in the second we loosened up a bit. In the third they had some chances but we found a way to hold on. It was a good road win."

Khabibulin, however, realizes the season is still young and he has a long way to go to erase his two prior seasons of mediocrity in an Oilers sweater.

"I wouldn't say all season long because it hasn't been long yet, but I felt pretty good," Khabibulin said of his hot start. "I think we're all playing well, so that helps."

Carey Price saw very little action at the other end, allowing two goals on just 13 shots, but Montreal (5-7-2) displayed an inability to pierce the Bulin Wall and lost their second straight.

"When you consider the number of opportunities we had, it could have been a much different game if we could have cashed in on a couple of them," Canadiens forward Erik Cole said.

The Oilers got their first goal while the Canadiens were on one of their six power plays in the game, with Ryan Jones pouncing on a careless Tomas Plekanec turnover to go in alone and score on a breakaway at 4:38 of the second period.

"The games where we're ahead on the special teams we usually win," Cole said, "and games where we're not you see the results."

It was one of two breakaways the Canadiens allowed on their power play, which generated just three shots on goal.

"Our penalty killing’s been really good all year but it starts with your goaltender," Smyth said. "Key saves at the right time and our coaching staff has put out a good game plan for us and we seem to be executing it properly."

Edmonton welcomed Ales Hemsky back to the lineup after an 11-game absence due to a shoulder injury, and he earned an assist on the eventual winning goal by Tom Gilbert at 16:28 of the third.

Montreal’s Max Pacioretty broke Khabibulin’s bid for his third shutout in nine starts just 22 seconds later, scoring on a backhand through the legs for his team-leading sixth of the season at 16:50.

Khabibulin made a tremendous pad save on a Plekanec shot with just over a minute remaining to preserve the one-goal lead. Seconds later, Smyth iced the game after the Habs pulled Price.

While the puck remained in the Edmonton end for long stretches of the game, thanks in no small part to the Oilers taking penalties, Khabibulin kept making the key saves when he was called upon.

Erik Cole and Michael Cammalleri were at the center of most of the Canadiens prime offensive chances. Cammalleri hit the goal post during a first period power play while Khabibulin was playing without a stick, and then he was stopped early in the second when Cole set him up for a backdoor tap in.

Cole was absolutely robbed from point blank range just past the 17-minute mark of the second, and he later set up Cammalleri for a one-timer that Khabibulin again stoned.

"We had a lot of opportunities to score," Cole said. "Khabibulin played well and we weren't able to cash in on a lot of really good opportunities."
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