Oilers Khabibulin thwarts Flames

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:18 AM ET

EDMONTON - Everyone knew Nikolai Khabibulin’s second pre-season start would be better than his first.

Duh. Short of starting the building on fire it couldn’t have been any worse.

But few expected this big a bounce back.

After giving up three goals on his first seven shots Tuesday against Minnesota, he all but beat the Calgary Flames by himself on Saturday, stealing the show in a 2-1 victory at Rexall Place.

Well, he stole 18:43 of it, anyway.

The last bit went to a couple of kids you might have heard of.

The Oilers skated their last two No.1 picks together on the same line for the first time, and with 77 seconds left in regulation Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, provided a moment in history, combining for the game-winning goal.

If everything unfolds like it should, it was the first of many memorable, game-winning heroics for the twosome.

“It was great, he’s such a great player and sees the ice so well,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who played 18:36 and won 50% of his faceoffs. “You give him the puck and he’s gone. We started to develop some chemistry as the game went on and I felt by the end we started reading off each other pretty well.”

By the third period they were giving the Flames all they could handle.

“It’s fun to play with him,” said Hall. “As the game went on we spent less time in our end and way more time in their end. For a young centreman to win draws like that and get the puck out of our end with no problem is a heavy task and he did that very well.”

Hall can’t help but think what everyone in the building was thinking — how cool this could be if it all comes together like it could.

“This team certainly has the talent,” he said. “That’s 100%, for sure. What’s not definite is whether we can put really good seasons together. We’re not going to promise anything yet, but if we work hard and keep developing as players and people and keep this franchise going in the right direction it will be an exciting time.”

Of course, without Khabibulin, it would have just been the second Oilers goal in a 5-2 loss.

He looked much better this time around, allowing one goal on 17 shots and making four or five all-world saves.

“I felt more in control,” said Khabibulin. “Not everything is smooth yet, but it did feel a lot better. I saw the puck a little bit better and I think the speed of the game felt better, those are the major things. After five months of not playing, to see a puck flying out of legs, when you don’t see it, is hard to pick up.”

He made a brilliant glove grab on Sven Baertsci after Calgary’s first-round pick picked Anton Lander’s pocket in the slot in the third period. He also made a lightning-fast pad save on Matt Stajan in the second. His game-saver on Greg Nemisz wasn’t bad, either.

Clearly, the shaky first outing didn’t seem to rattle him at all.

“The confidence is always there,” he said. “Sometimes you feel better or worse but as long as you believe in your ability sooner or later you’re going to play better.”

LATE HITS: C Sam Gagner left the game with a leg injury in the second period after slamming into the end boards ... Ryan Jones scored for Edmonton on a shorthanded breakaway in the final minute of the second period.

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