EDMONTON - With a "win and you're in" edict from coach Tom Renney, Devan Dubnyk has staked his claim to the goal crease by backstopping the Edmonton Oilers to five of a possible six points in three straight starts.
Dubnyk made his case again Tuesday, stopping 31 of 33 shots in a 3-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche at Rexall Place. If Renney is true to his word, veteran Nikolai Khabibulin will take a seat again when the Chicago Blackhawks visit Thursday and Dubnyk will make a fourth straight start for the first time in his NHL career.
"I'm enjoying it," said Dubnyk, who is in his third full season with the Oilers. "You have to allow yourself to enjoy it and reflect when you do play well and put some games together.
"As much as you have to stay level-headed, it's important to enjoy it and feel good about yourself and your game, give yourself a pat on the back once in a while."
That's the key to building confidence, says Dubnyk.
"That's what makes the game fun," he said. "I always feel I'm playing my best when I'm having fun."
When this season began, the expectation was Dubnyk would shoulder a heavier workload than 2010-11, when he made 35 appearances.
It hasn't played out that way.
Khabibulin had a hot first month and Dubnyk struggled at times, prompting onlookers to ask if the six-foot-five netminder from Regina was ready to assume the top job from the 39-year-old veteran.
Dubnyk, 25, has certainly looked like an heir-apparent lately. He stopped 44 of 45 shots in a 2-1 shootout win over San Jose on Jan. 23, then turned aside 33 of 35 shots in a 3-2 shootout loss in Vancouver the following night before beating Colorado in his 24th appearance this season.
"You have to recognize that the opportunity will always present itself if you stay ready," Renney said.
"I think there was a point in time when Nik was playing really well and you kind of go, 'Oh, boy, when's my chance?' You've got to stay competitive. You've got to stay driven. You've got to persevere and you've got to really work.
"Not that he was not any of that, but to the level where you're just ready to go and nail it, maybe there's a lesson to be learned there. I think what he's done now is he's dialed in, really dialed in. He's played very, very well as a competitor."
All told, Dubnyk has allowed five goals on 113 shots through his last three outings. He's got an 8-11-1 record, a 2.83 goals-against average and a saves percentage of .911.
Khabibulin, meanwhile, is 11-15-4 with two shutouts, a 2.45 goals-against average and a .918 saves percentage through 30 appearances.
"You look at any NHL team and goaltending matters," said defenceman Ryan Whitney. "No matter how good you are up front, no matter how good your top six is in the back, it always comes down to that goalie.
"You need that solid guy in the back. The thing for Devan is he's right on the cusp. I don't think he's quite proven yet he's a No. 1 goalie, but if you look at his recent string of work, he has been and I think he will be."
Khabibulin had the hot hand as Edmonton jumped out to a surprising 9-3-2 start to the season. There was talk then of the rebuilding Oilers pushing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. On a 10-23-3 slide since, Dubnyk's opportunity to make an impression now comes framed in different circumstances.
"Our goaltending has certainly carried us at times this season," Renney said. "We haven't been very good in front of them.
"We just need them to be as consistent as possible because confidence kind of grows from that position."
With the Oilers in 14th place and 12 points back of the eighth-place Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference with 32 games remaining, a post-season push is a long shot at best. While Dubnyk isn't looking that far ahead, he's aware of the opportunity in front of him now.
"Obviously, it's an opportunity to keep going and it's an opportunity for the whole team," Dubnyk said. "We all play together to win games. It's not just me, it's not just somebody else. It's as a team.
"If you can get on a roll and win games together, that's growing together and it's exciting to have that opportunity."
Keeping the crease means beating the Blackhawks.
"It's so important to just take each shot at a time," Dubnyk said. "If you concentrate on what you need to do, the result will be there at the end of the game. You can't think about the end of the game at the start of the game.
"You don't think, 'I've got to win this game so I can play the next one.' I just want to try to approach it like I have and that's by not taking anything for granted and by doing what's making me successful."