Goaltending has been a big part of the Oilers early season success. Devan Dubnyk is off to a strong start, while Nikolai Khabibulin is off to an incredible one. The question is whether they can keep it up.
Numbers wise, it’s almost a given that Khabibulin won’t continue posting a goals against average under 1.00 and a save percentage north of .960. Dubnyk’s 2.30 and .920 are above expectations, but not entirely unsustainable.
Has Khabibulin rebounded from last year’s disastrous season? It’s obviously too early to tell, but there are things to look out for technically that can give us some clues. Since joining the Oilers, his biggest downfall has been his ability to control rebounds and most of his struggles in that aspect are based on the style he plays.
Unlike most of the goalies coming up today, Khabibulin does not rely on the butterfly-blocking style that most goaltenders now use. He’s more of a hybrid goaltender that likes to rely on reflexes. The main difference is that the butterfly goaltender is basically ready to go down at any hint of a shot, while a reflex goaltender will react to the shot being taken.
Where Khabibulin has gotten in most of his trouble is his stick positioning when he makes a save. Aside from covering a bit of ice around your five-hole, your stick is there to deflect pucks to the corner, reign in rebounds or poke pucks away. Due to the fact that Khabibulin reacts to the shot, he ends up using his arms for momentum, which ends up causing his stick to flail off to the side or away from where it’s supposed to be.
This is a pretty routine shot from a spot on the ice that shouldn’t cause too many problems. The shot is low, right on the ice and without much of a screen. The puck hits Khabibulin in the pad and ends up right in front of the net where a Wild player is heading. Luckily, Eager is able to make a solid defensive play and prevent a pretty good scoring opportunity.
The initial shot gets past Sutton, and is on its way to Khabibuilin, who hasn’t started his motion to go down yet. You can notice his hands are in good position (up and out), and his stick is on the ice and between his legs. The idea when you go down is to keep your blocker and glove at the same level and move them as a unit.
Khabibulin goes down and you can see how his arms haven’t maintained their positioning. The blocker has gone high, which has pulled his stick off the ice and his glove has gone low. It’s almost as if he’s a bit off balance to his glove side.
Instead of being able to get his stick across and deflect the puck, he has to worry about resetting his position and starts to bring his arms back in line and his stick back down to the ice. You can see the puck hit his right pad, just past where his stick would have been had he gone down properly in his butterfly.
Khabibulin tries to kick the puck away with his pad but really can’t get anything on it and it ends up going onto a bad spot on the ice. Luckily, the Oilers are able to clear the puck. The notion that the goaltender has to make the first save and the team will take care of the rest is about 30 years out of date. There are plays where a rebound is simply not possible to prevent. The key is to not give up rebounds on shots you can easily control or to at least be in good position to make the second save (i.e. square to the shooter). Khabibulin still hasn’t shown that he’s able to control his rebounds all that well and he’s still in desperation mode when he does give out rebounds. Great saves are fun to watch but it is tough when you have to rely on them.
This is not to say Khabibulin hasn’t played well, he certainly has. He's not giving up weak goals (Minnesota game aside) as often as he had last year and he is making the second save on the rebounds he has been giving up. Added to that, the Oilers as a group have done a better job not falling apart defensively when the rebounds go into the slot (which was a common occurrence last year). As long as he keeps stopping the puck, I don't think anyone cares how he does it or how he looks doing it. As a reaction goaltender, having a history of back problems and being almost 39 years old are things that are going to work against you. This is not meant to be negative, it's meant as something to look at as the season progresses. By eye he hasn't really improved his rebound control, he (and the team in general) has just done a better job at keeping them out of the net. The question is, how long can that work?
In the meantime, the Oilers could really use some more offense to get a few more wins out of his .960 save percentage.