EDMONTON - The good news for the Edmonton Oilers is Nikolai Khabibulin already appears to be in mid-season form. The bad news, with all the rubber the steadfast Russian goaltender has faced, is he's had to be.
Fresh from a 39-save performance in a 2-1 win over Vancouver Monday, the Oilers big free agent signing last summer - Khabibulin inked a four-year deal worth US$15 million - has looked like money in the bank after a so-so pre-season and a tough start to the regular season.
With the Oilers allowing an average of 33.5 shots a game through their first eight outings, Khabibulin's earned every penny.
"I'm not too concerned about the shot total," Khabibulin said. "In the last couple games, from what I see, the guys are working more in sync now. I think it's probably just a matter of time. We'll keep improving."
Khabibulin, 36, was brought in to fill the void left when the Oilers decided not to offer Dwayne Roloson the multi-year contract he ended up getting from the New York Islanders.
Through seven appearances, Khabibulin boasts a 4-2-1 record, a 2.81 goals-against average and a .912 save-percentage. He's managed those numbers despite the Oilers allowing 268 shots through eight games. Only Atlanta and Florida have given up more on average.
"As far as the shots are concerned, I am worried about the differential," said coach Pat Quinn. "Once you get in the 30-range, you're starting to get where you don't like that.
"We're not as strong as I'd like to be and intend to be in our defensive zone, both in our coverage without the puck or even when we win the puck. We're a little, I don't like the word soft, but we're not assertive in how we're going to get that thing moving in the opposite direction."
The Oilers have given up 30-or-more shots in five of Khabibulin's seven starts and six of eight games overall - back-up Jeff Deslauriers stopped 40 of 41 shots in a 6-1 win over Nashville.
"That's why we got him," captain Ethan Moreau said of Khabibulin. "He's a good goalie and good goalies win games. For us to be successful we need an elite goalie and we've got one.
"Do we want to give up 40 shots a night? Absolutely not, but there are going to be nights when we get outshot and he can win us games. It's something we have to focus on and try to give him some easy nights as well."
With the Oilers learning new systems under Quinn and feeling their way into the season defensively, opponents have had their chances. Khabibulin had to get on top of his game in a hurry. He did.
"Over the years, I've learned you've got to work hard and stick to the stuff that works," Khabibulin said.
"Eventually, it's going to turn around. You don't get satisfaction from the game when you don't play well. At the same time, you have to be patient."
After going 2-1-0 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .884 save-percentage in the pre-season, Khabibulin's first two starts of the regular season were no walks in the park.
He allowed four goals on 21 shots in a 4-3 loss to Calgary Oct. 3 and then four more on 34 shots in a 5-4 shootout win over Dallas Oct. 6. While some Oilers fans might have been a bit unsure about their new goaltender at that point, Khabibulin buckled down.
"Obviously, there's an adjustment period when you come to a new team," said Khabibulin. "And there's a whole new coaching staff, so it takes a little bit of time for everybody.
"It's a little bit like that for me, too. There's a whole new defence. We're trying to get to know each other."
While Quinn and his staff continue to work on tightening up the defensive game, and are doing it without injured Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios, Khabibulin has the coach's confidence.
"He's been very good, very sharp," Quinn said. "We knew coming in, we had a conversation, he wanted some time to get ready. He knew he wasn't ready. That's why we gave him some time (in the pre-season).
"We didn't give him many games. We just wanted to give him some practice time and let him get comfortable. He's worked his way into that."