|Nikolai Khabibulin will start ahead of Devan Dubnyk for the Oilers tonight. (Codie McLachlan/QMI Agency)
EDMONTON - Nikolai Khabibulin will make his second consecutive start and Sam Gagner draws into the lineup as the Edmonton Oilers host the New York Rangers Saturday (8 p.m. local) at Rexall Place.
Khabibulin has not conceded more than a goal in regulation play this season and was solid in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, despite letting in a sharp-angle shot from Dany Heatley with just over a second left in the third period.
“I just thought he was good the other night, I liked the way he played, I like where he is mentally,” said Oilers head coach Tom Renney. “I wouldn’t read too much into it, beyond him starting tonight.”
Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk had been rotating starts up to this point. Khabibulin goes into the contest with a league-best 0.95 goals against average and a second-best .962 save percentage.
Gagner, meanwhile, will be making his season debut having recovered from a high-ankle sprain suffered four weeks ago in an exhibition game against the Calgary Flames.
Gagner will take Linus Omark’s spot in the Oilers lineup and play on the right wing alongside Eric Belanger and Magnus Paajarvi.
“It’s been long enough, especially with last season ending a little early for me,” Gagner said. “It was a long off-season and I felt pretty good in camp, so it was disappointing to get injured. I’m really excited to get back and it should be a good night tonight.”
Last season, Gagner’s year was cut short when he severed a tendon in his hand after being inadvertently sliced by Ryan Jones’ skate while on the bench.
Gagner finished the year with 15 goals and added 27 assists in 68 games.
Predominately a centre, Gagner will have to play on the wing as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Shawn Horcoff, Belanger and Anton Lander currently occupy the four spots up the middle for the Oilers.
“We have a lot of depth on this team and a lot of guys who play in different positions,” Gagner said. “For myself, I’m not really worried too much where I play, I’m just excited to get back in the lineup and play with two guys with a lot of skill, who play solid at both ends of the rink.”
Despite hinting that Nugent-Hopkins may sit as he approaches the nine-game window where the Oilers can still send him back to junior without paying his NHL salary, the rookie will take his regular position between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
"I heard a little but about it but I didn’t pay too much attention to it," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I was going to wait until this morning to find out for sure.”
The three had a heart-to-heart talk with Renney on the ice during the morning skate.
“He told us to shoot the puck and get some action in front of their net," Hall said. "We’ve been lacking in our traffic around the net the last couple of games and we’re trying to fix that.”