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Khabibulin in fight to start for Oilers

Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff tries to put the puck past goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin during...

Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff tries to put the puck past goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin during practice at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Oct. 11, 2011. (CODIE McLACHLAN/QMI Agency)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:32 AM ET

EDMONTON - Nikolai Khabibulin is one of about 23 players in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room who feels like a kid again Ö only not for the same reasons that, say, a revitalized Ryan Smyth or an 18-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are feeling so young.

In Khabibulinís case, heís having rookie flashbacks because thatís how far you have to go back to find a time when he wasnít a starting goaltender ó his debut season with 1994 Winnipeg Jets.

So itís no wonder he had to struggle for an answer when asked if he could find happiness, some 18 years and 743 games later, being a backup again.

ďI donít know,Ē he shrugged after a long delay. ďIíve never been in that situation before so I donít know what to tell you.Ē

Fair enough. And also in fairness to the 38-year-old war horse, itís only one game and one missed start into the season, so any ironclad declarations about his role this season might be a little premature.

But Devan Dubnyk got the nod on opening night against Pittsburgh and if you read anything into that, and most did, itís sign enough that head coach Tom Renney is at least ready to change the guard.

ďIn a perfect world I would have liked to start the last game, home opener, but itís out of my control,Ē Khabibulin said after practice Tuesday. ďMy focus is on working hard in practice and waiting for the chance.

ďNothing changes for me. I come to the rink every day to work. Iíve been in the game long enough that I know Iím going to get my chance, and when I get my chance I better be prepared.Ē

Guys with Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medals donít usually shy away from a challenge and Khabibulin, who has both after reaching the top of the mountain with Tampa Bay and Russia, is up for this one.

ďI think itís good that Dubie can come in and play, and play well,Ē he said. ďAnd itís going to force me to be more desperate. More hungry Ö fight for the puck a little more, through traffic and stuff like that.

ďItís all good. At the end of the day if he pushes me and I play better or the other way around, the team is going to win.Ē

Renney likes the spirit he sees in one of his team leaders and hopes that itís contagious, whether youíre young or old, in the starting lineup or in the press box.

ďHeís going to battle,Ē said the coach. ďAnd you hope that sets a standard from the net out for all of our guys, 82 times.Ē

Having said that, Renney refuses to reveal whoís starting Thursday in Minnesota, If itís Khabibulin, it might be an indication that a 50-50 split is in the plans this year, which, while not perfect, would be a reasonably palatable situation for the veteran.

If itís Dubnyk again, then Khabibulin will likely have to resign himself to being a caddy this year.

ďI have no idea,Ē said Khabibulin, when asked if heís playing.

Heís also not resigning himself to anything. His intent is to win back his share of the starts.

ďI donít want to sit, period. So whatever happens, happens, but I donít like to sit on the bench, itís not what Iím used to,Ē he said. ďThe coaches obviously decide who plays when, but for me I want to play. Iím going to fight for it.Ē

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@Sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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