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Bulin Wall Back (or Khabby Times)

by Gene Principe / Edmonton Oilers
It's hard not to get lost in all the excitement that abounds with the young talent the Edmonton Oilers have accumulated. Yet in the pre-season I had a little one-on-one time with Tom Renney. We spoke of all these young forwards and the coach was bursting with excitement over the prospect of all this ability. However he was clear in saying if we make the playoffs it will be because of our goaltending. In his mind at the end of the day, at the end of the game and the season it would be the task of tending net that would decide the fate of the Oilers.

It's only been three weeks into the season and the coach has been spot on. Edmonton isn't generating anywhere near the offence it expected but no need to worry. Not with the way Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin have been handling theit duties. In particular Khabibulin. As you read this on your iPhone, iPad, laptop, home computer or any other device be honest with me. Did you ever think that Nikolai Khabibulin would have the league's best goals-against average and second-best save percentage? His GAA of 0.72 is tops and save percentage of .969 stands above anyone else in the league except for LA's Jonathan Quick.

This turnaround is nothing short of spectacular. In 2009-10 he was 7-9-2 with a 3.03 GAA along with a .909 save percentage and that was the end of that because a back injury and subsequent surgery cost him the rest of the season. In 2010-11 10-32-4 record with a 3.40 GAA and a .890 save percentage. His numbers were going up along with his age and this wasn't anywhere near what the Oilers expected when they shelled out nearly 16 million dollars on July 1, 2009.

While one year was a washout due to a bad back, maybe the next year could be chalked up to a bad mind. I've never had a criminal offence hanging over me or the prospect of jail time a distinct possibility so unless you have it's impossible to guess what was going on inside Khabibulin's head. He tried to play one of the most difficult positions in sport on a struggling team with everything off the ice weighing on him all at the same time. It was too much for even a grown man pushing 40 to be able to juggle successfully. 

People were quick to suggest letting him loose and buying Khabibulin out of his contract and setting this franchise free of a perceived under achieving over paid goaltender. No one would have blamed the Oilers for doing so but let's toss out some credit for not making what would have been the easy decision. Instead they decided sticking with Khabibulin was the right way to go. They had to know after the off ice scenario that this former Cup champ would come out fighting for respect and playing time. Yet they didn't hand the job right back into his lap. Tom Renney decided to not start Khabibulin on opening night. That might have been the most clear and direct way of saying you had the #1 job..past tense. Another alarming realization that the netminding landscape was changing.

Khabibulin didn't flinch instead he worked on proving that he can still play. That the game hadn't passed him by. In the last two years he had gone through the most difficult time of his life both on and off the ice. Quitting or being resigned to a fate of a backup would have been understandable but responding is what he did. His life may have changed and so has his goaltending. It's back to where it belongs and to where the team expected. Khabby and Khabby times have returned with the Bulin Wall back in net.


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