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The Progress Report: The Iron Mask

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Nikolai Khabibulin

It would be fair to suggest that coming into the 2010-11 season, goaltending was one of the primary concerns for most Oilers fans. While the year was dedicated to growth and development, the lack of clarity in the crease presented some uneasiness regarding the future in goal.

After all, Edmonton’s number one netminder was relegated to only 18 games last season before being sidelined with a season-ending back injury, and neither Jeff Deslauriers or Devan Dubnyk had truly grabbed hold of the opportunity to secure the backup role and establish themselves as the future between the pipes. To further cloud the situation, Khabibulin’s off-season legal issues presented an interesting dilemma as the season began.

Now 30 games into the season and the painting couldn’t be clearer. Nikolai Khabibulin, despite suffering a minor setback in late November, has returned to the crease in fine form. Devan Dubnyk stepped up and earned the backup role with a strong pre-season and his ever-evolving practice habits.

Statistically, the numbers haven’t been on Khabibulin’s side. In the 2010-11 campaign, Khabibulin boasts a 3.49 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage. In most situations, many wouldn’t correlate these numbers with a successful, MVP-like season.

It is, however, important to consider the other factors that have helped contribute to these skewed statistics. It’s one of the many circumstances where looking at the numbers alone will result in a deceiving conclusion.

Prior to his late-November groin strain that sidelined the goaltender for a brief period, Khabibulin had a below .900 save percentage in nine of his 15 games; a troubling statistic, no doubt. However, a closer inspection helps to reveal why.

Of course, it has always been a common saying that your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer. While this is certainly true, Khabibulin wasn’t receiving much help.

In those aforementioned 15 games, the Oilers gave up an incredible 20 powerplay markers. Inconsistency in execution, over-pursuit of the puck at the points, and other factors noted by Head Coach Tom Renney firmly planted the team’s position in the cellar of the league’s penalty killing statistics.

The result for Khabibulin and the Oilers reflected that unfortunate standing. With a record of 4-10-1 through the season’s first 15 games, the Oilers were already looking up at 29 other clubs.

Just when it seemed that the 2010-11 season was headed down a familiar path, things started to improve in a hurry. Khabibulin’s injury initially seemed too daunting to overcome, but the infusion of stable veteran Martin Gerber and solid play from young Devan Dubnyk, perhaps, helped to inspire a bout of change in penalty killing execution.

Upon Khabibulin’s return on December 2 vs. Toronto, the veteran netminder was playing behind a much different team; a club teeming with the confidence required to execute a successful penalty kill and compete at a higher level as the group overcame adversity.

Nikolai Khabibulin
Prior to Tuesday night’s loss to the very same Maple Leafs, Khabibulin was playing lights-out for his team. His post-injury record was an impressive 3-0-1 as the Oilers continued on a six-game point streak. In those four games, the Oilers only gave up a single powerplay marker.

A coincidence, this was not.

Respectively, Khabibulin put up save percentages of 100, .969, .938, and .927 immediately following his return. Even more impressively, several other key saves were made during a pair of shootouts to help the Oilers procure important bonus points.

Khabibulin's game-saver vs. Tampa Bay
Khabibulin's pad save on Anaheim's Corey Perry

Then, of course, we must consider the shot discrepancy. The Oilers have been out-shot in 24 of 30 games this season. With the occasional lack of offensive support, all of Edmonton’s goaltenders have been forced to stay sharp at all times to overcome the tilted offensive attack.

Hockey has always been the ultimate team sport, but individual numbers have never been kind to goaltenders that perform on a developing team. Fortunately for Khabibulin and the rest of the team, improvements on a team-scale are almost always reflected in the individual stat charts. A penalty kill that has, up until last night, run perfect over the past week has helped to record wins on both sides of the spectrum.

The growth and development from the likes of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi has been exciting, but the progress as a team is most important for the Oilers moving forward. The improved effort on the penalty kill has helped to shine light on the stellar play of the team’s number one goaltender; praise that’s not only deserving, but well overdue.

At least for the time being, the situation in goal is the least of Edmonton’s worries. Khabibulin’s play has been incredible of late, while young Devan Dubnyk continues to get further opportunities to shine in his secured role.

In what appeared to be a cloudy situation before the season began has cleared itself through the dedication and inspired play from two excellent goaltenders. What happens beyond this season is up to the players themselves. Right now, Nikolai Khabibulin is getting the job done in a big way.  
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