EDMONTON – It’s been 10 months since troubled goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin appeared in net for the Edmonton Oilers, but there didn’t appear to be much rust.
Khabibulin made 26 saves in his first action since being convicted of drunk driving in Arizona as the Oilers thumped the Vancouver Canucks 8-2 in NHL pre-season action Sunday.
Rookie Jordan Eberle led the way offensively for the Oilers with two goals and an assist.
Khabibulin was making his first start since suffering a string of setbacks, starting with a season-ending back injury last November. He was convicted last month of drunk driving and excessive speeding stemming from an incident in a Scottsdale, Ariz., suburb last February.
The 37-year-old Russian received a minimum 30-day sentence. His lawyer immediately appealed, and the process could last months or even a year.
If jailed, it’s possible Khabibulin could serve his time at a tent prison in the Arizona desert.
But from a playing perspective, Khabibulin was satisfied with his first game back from the lengthy absence.
“The shots through traffic, pucks in close and guys driving the net and banging for the rebound, you don’t really get that in practice,”he said.“That’s something I still need to get used to a little more. The more games I play the better it will get.”
Shawn Horcoff and Dustin Penner also scored twice and Chris Vande Velde and Linus Omark had the other goals for the Oilers, who remained perfect in pre-season play at 3-0.
Omark, another offensively gifted player hoping to make the Oilers, also chipped in with a pair of assists.
“It is only my second game,”he said.“Hopefully I will only get better. It’s good for the confidence. It’s getting better every day. I hope I make the team. That’s why I am here.”
But it was Eberle who really stood out, almost matching the three goal, one assist game put forward by fellow highly-touted rookie Magnus Paajarvi last Thursday.
“It’s nice to break out and put some pucks in the net,”Eberle said.“But you don’t want to get too high about a pre-season game. I just want to get better every day and build on that. There is a bit of competitive rivalry between some of the young guys coming in but at the same time we are all cheering for each other.”
First-overall draft pick Taylor Hall had two assists on the night.
Horcoff, who also had a three-point night playing with Hall and Eberle, admits that the way the rookies have played in exhibition could be raising expectations.
“That’s fine, we want that,”he said.“It’s good for the whole team. Eberle is so easy to play with, he does everything right. And Hall is just raw talent.”
Manny Malholtra and Ryan Kesler responded with goals for the Canucks (1-4).
Edmonton took an early lead on a power play goal exactly two minutes in as Eberle picked up a rebound from a blocked shot and calmly put the puck over the shoulder of Vancouver starter Cory Schneider.
The Oilers then made it 2-0 before the five minute mark on another power play goal as a James Vandermeer shot trickled through Schneider’s pads and was tapped in by Penner.
Vancouver got on the board six and a half minutes in as a puck got wedged between the post and Khabibulin’s skate before being shoved in during a scrum in front of the net by Malholtra.
It took only 16 seconds for the Oilers to respond. Eberle showed some good moves to drive in on net, and a trailing Horcoff snapped home the goal for a 3-1 Edmonton lead.
The same pairing gave Edmonton a three-goal advantage on a two-on-one break, as Horcoff made a nice feed to Eberle who scored his second of the game.
Edmonton went ahead 5-1 five minutes into the second frame as Teemu Hartikainen broke up a pass and sent Vande Velde in on a two-on-one. Vande Velde elected to shoot it himself for his second of the pre-season.
Vancouver got one back with two minutes left in the second period on a goal Khabibulin would like back as he got a piece of a long shot by Kesler, only to see it dribble in.
The Oilers added a couple of quick goals to start the third. Just 45 seconds in a rebound from a Vandermeer shot dropped in front of the net and Horcoff was there to guide home his second of the match. Then less than a minute later Omark, another rookie with a big upside, walked through half of the Canucks team before undressing Schneider with a deke to make it 7-2 Edmonton.
Omark made another nice play for his third point as he dropped a pass back through his own legs to Brule, who sent a fluttering shot on goal that was tipped in by Penner.
Vancouver returns home to play San Jose on Tuesday while Edmonton next hosts Phoenix on Wednesday.
Notes: Highly touted Canuck rookie prospect Cody Hodgson finally made his pre-season debut on Sunday, coming back from battling a back injury. Hodgson played just 13 games last season with his junior club in Brampton and had eight goals and 12 assists during that time…Vancouver iced an entirely different roster than it did during it’s victory over Anaheim on Saturday. Notable absences against Edmonton included Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Roberto Luongo…Among those not dressed for the Oilers were Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Tom Gilbert. Paajarvi also sat out.