EDMONTON – Nikolai Khabibulin has been faulted for coughing up points in a pair of last-minute losses to Calgary to start the season.
He earned two of them back for the Oilers on Saturday night. The 36-year-old Khabibulin turned aside 33 shots as Edmonton beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 to climb over the .500 mark for the first time in the young NHL season.
“He got us the two points tonight,” said Oilers head coach Pat Quinn. “He was very sharp. He was ready to play right off the bat which was a good thing because we certainly let him get tested right off the bat. For the most part, he was the story for us.
“He’s been better in each one of his games. He was excellent tonight.”
Khabibulin said he still has some work to do but added that he feels his game is starting to come around.
“I’m feeling more comfortable,” said Khabibulin, who signed with Edmonton from Chicago in the off-season.
The Russian netminder has been criticized after two straight 4-3 losses to the Flames in the first week of the season.
“I’m feeling a little better. There are still a few things I need to clear up. The last couple of days I’m seeing the puck better.”
Mike Comrie, J.F. Jacques and Patrick O’Sullivan scored for the Oilers (2-1-1), who snagged five out of a possible eight points on their season-opening four-game homestand.
Brian Gionta and Roman Hamrlik replied with goals for the Canadiens (2-3-0) who lost the final three games of a five-game road swing.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Canadiens defenceman Paul Mara, after his team’s third straight loss in western Canada.
“I thought we played pretty well. We outshot them 35-19. It’s tough to lose these last three games after having a great 2-0 start. Hopefully we can make that ground back up at home and work on all of the things we need to.”
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin was blunt in his assessment.
“Where we lost the game was mistakes,” said Martin. “Two mistakes cost us two goals. It’s disappointing because a win here tonight would have made the trip a lot better. We just have to regroup at home now.”
The Canadiens return home and start a six-game homestand beginning Thursday against Colorado.
Edmonton was fortunate to lead 1-0 after the first period.
Khabibulin was forced to be strong in the early going as the Canadiens peppered him with 13 shots in the opening period.
Edmonton only had six shots on Montreal starter Carey Price, but made one of them count with just 1:20 left in the period. Sam Gagner sent Comrie in on a partial breakaway with a long pass and he beat Price with a high wrist shot.
The Oilers went ahead 2-0 early in the second period when Jacques tipped a Ladislav Smid shot through Price’s legs for just his second point in 64 career NHL games.
Five minutes later it was a three-goal game as Ryan Stone stole a puck in the Montreal zone and sent it to O’Sullivan in front. He beat Price with a low shot that the Habs goalie would probably like to have back. Edmonton scored three goals on its first 10 shots.
Montreal finally got on the board with just 49 seconds left as Gilbert Brule coughed up a puck and the Canadiens went in on a two-on-one. Gionta elected to shoot, beating Khabibulin with a slapshot to make it 3-1 after 40 minutes.
Montreal cut the lead to 3-2 with just 3:22 to play as a Hamrlik shot caromed off an Edmonton defender and over Khabibulin’s shoulder.
Montreal poured on the pressure with Price out of the net for the final minute but Edmonton was able to hang on for the victory.
The Oilers begin a brief two-game trip in Nashville on Monday.
Notes: Montreal entered the game having lost its last six games at Rexall Place since 2001. The Canadiens did have a road win over Edmonton in that span – they beat the Oilers in the Heritage Classic outdoor game at Commonwealth Stadium in 2003. … D Steve Staios re-entered the Edmonton lineup after missing time with a concussion. He replaced D Sheldon Souray, who is recovering from his own mild concussion after being hit into the boards by Calgary’s Jarome Iginla on Thursday. … The Canadiens were without forward Glen Metropolit, suffering from a rib injury. Metropolit tried to practise with the team on Friday but left after 20 minutes.