The NHL's last remaining undefeated team, the Washington Capitals, went into Edmonton Thursday night with an intimidating squad and a goalie, Tomas Vokoun, who last week was named one of the league's top three stars. But the Oilers, despite being outshot 35-19 and facing a 6-on-4 man Washington onslaught in the game's final minute, held on for a 2-1 victory that handed the Caps their first loss. As the buzzer went off, fans in Edmonton rose to their feet, chanting "Khabi! Khabi! Khabi!"
Much has been made of the Edmonton Oilers' young offensive talents, but the player who has emerged as one of the team's most important early season pieces is precisely the opposite: an old been-there-done-that goaltender. 38-year old Nikolai Khabibulin has certainly seen it all, with "it" meaning, variously, a stint on the Old Winnipeg Jets, who drafted him in the ninth round of the 1992 draft, a 2004 Stanley Cup victory with the Tampa Bay Lightning, gold and bronze medals with Russia at the Olympics, a deep 2008 playoff run with the Chicago Blackhawks, and a 15-day stay this sweltering summer at the state of Arizona's fearsome "Tent City" jail after a 2010 DUI arrest.
It seemed, a few weeks ago, that the Oilers' young goaltending prospect Devan Dubnyk might be close to earning the team's #1 spot. And who knows -- it's a long season, particularly for a goalie; he may yet. But for now, its the ole "Bulin Wall" who has become the Oilers' top guy. He's yet to let in more than two goals in a game, compiling a 4-0-2 record. His goals against average of 0.97 is the league's best, as is his .964 save percentage. He shut out the Rangers, and stopped 35 of 37 shots against the Vancouver Canucks. Against the Capitals, he made 34 saves.
This summer Khabibulin announced that rather than continue to pursue an appeal of his DUI sentence, which would preclude his participation in Oilers training camp, he would agree to serve time at the notorious barracks-style jail. He said in a statement at the time that upon his return to the game "I will strive to be the best player, teammate, and citizen possible." I can't speak to the third category, of course, but he's sure doing a hell of a job with the first two.
In other goaltending news from around the league:
- Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury put a flourish on a shootout victory over the New York Islanders Thursday night, making the game-winning save with a poke check on John Tavares. On the other end of the ice, the Isles made the initially curious decision to pull Evgeni Nabokov, who continued his recent strong play with a 30-save performance against Pittsburgh, at the start of the shootout in favor of Rick DiPietro, who literally stood between the pipes stretching and trying to get warm in between shootout attempts. While some mused that perhaps Nabokov's 19-21 record in shootouts caused the Tony La Russa-like shuffling, he said after the game that a "lower body injury" and fatigue was the factor.
- On Corey Crawford Bobblehead Night at Chicago's United Center, the Blackhawks goalie turned in another fine performance, making 29 saves on 31 shots and, most memorably, moving from post to post to rob the Anaheim Ducks' Bobby Ryan late and preserve the tie game before stopping two of three Anaheim attempts during the shootout.
- On Monday, the Florida Panthers' 21-year old Jacob Markstrom stopped 40 shots in the Panthers' 2-1 win over Montreal.
- Filling in for the Blues' floundering starter Jaroslav Halak, backup goaltender Brian Elliott has begun to bring the words "goaltender controversy" to the lips of St. Louis fans: he's 4-0-0 in his starts this season.
- Scoring eight goals is typically enough to win handily in hockey, but it doesn't help when your opponents net nine. After giving up five goals to Montreal Wednesday, the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov let in
ninefour goals on 10 shots last night to the Winnipeg Jets, telling reporters after the game that he was "lost in the woods" and has "zero confidence in myself right now."
There's no disputing that goalies have the best equipment in professional sports, and the good ship Uni Watch recently compiled a near-encyclopedic dossier of not just the helmets of every NHL goalie, but the pads as well. According to Tyler Hall, a goalie equipment expert Uni Watch spoke with, goalie pads are akin to fingerprints, snowflakes, or, perhaps more fittingly, humpback whale tails: no two are alike. "The thing that makes goalie pads so different from other pieces of sports equipment is that each pad is unique to each goalie and his style of play," Hall says.
Absent from the compilation, though, is my favorite goalie helmet of the month: the one that the Anaheim Ducks' Jonas Hiller had made up to celebrate the hirsute month of Movember. The helmet is a bored doodlers dream, with each of his teammates' pictures graffiti'd to give them a mustache (and in some cases, coordinating soul patches too.) Hiller's teammate George Parros, a noted facial hair enthusiast, may have had something to do with this beauty.
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