Boston Bruins: 5 Keys to Thursday's Matchup with the Edmonton Oilers

Al DanielCorrespondent IINovember 10, 2011

Boston Bruins: 5 Keys to Thursday's Matchup with the Edmonton Oilers

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    The 6-7-0 Boston Bruins will try to elevate their record, both overall and at home, back to the .500 mark for the first time in a month with the Edmonton Oilers venturing into TD Garden Thursday night.

    Contrasting records be darned, there are abundant similarities between these parties. Through 13 and 14 games on their respective schedules, the Bruins and Oilers are tied for fifth in the NHL with a plus-10 cumulative goal differential.

    They each have a reliable goaltender bearing a Stanley Cup ring and teetering on the age of 40. They both have either a recent No. 1 or No. 2 draft choice (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Tyler Seguin) making ripples on the stats sheets.

    The five items worth considering for Thursday’s matchup are as follows.

Clearing the Bulin Wall

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    If Dwayne Roloson and Boston’s own Tim Thomas can play at this game, then why not Edmonton’s 38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin?

    Khabibulin is the only stopper in the league with a goals-against average below 1.00 (0.98) and is a close second behind Minnesota’s Josh Harding with a .964 save percentage. And of the four NHL goaltenders still without a regulation loss, he has had the longest unbeaten streak at 7-0-2 through nine appearances.

    Khabibulin has yielded two goals in a single game only twice so far, including his busiest outing when he faced 37 bids from the Vancouver Canucks. And he has let only one get by during an opposing power play.

    Backup Devan Dubnyk has been shakier, to say the least, with a 2-3-0 record and 11 goals-against, including six when his team is shorthanded.

    The fact that Khabibulin has gotten the nod in three of Edmonton’s last four games combined with Boston’s recent eruptions ought to mean that the Bruins will face the Russian veteran on Thursday. To beat him, they will either need to overwhelm him with a season-high workload (which they are capable of doing) or just search efficiently for seams.

Stymieing Smyth

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    The Oilers offense bears yet another formidable fogey in Ryan Smyth, who leads the team with seven goals and 14 points. And he has only gotten hotter as the season heats up. After literally alternating between a productive and pointless night his first nine outings, Smyth is coming in to the Garden on a five-game scoring streak with five goals and four assists in that span.

    Much like the Bruins, the Oilers have developed two reliable forward lines, despite Taylor Hall’s current cold streak (one point in the last five games). Beneath the Smyth-Shawn Horcoff-Jordan Eberle troika is a unit consisting of wingers Ales Hemsky and Ryan Jones centered by Nugent-Hopkins.

    The rookie Nugent-Hopkins already has six goals and six helpers through 14 NHL appearances while his linemates have combined for a 3-5-8 transcript, despite Hemsky’s having missed 11 games.

Special Teams in High Spirits

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    As noted previously, Khabibulin has allowed only one of the Oilers’ six opposing power-play goals. Thomas, Boston’s presumptive starter for Thursday night, has let in only two 5-on-4 strikes and none at all over his last six starts.

    Overall, the Bruins and Oilers are both enjoying a “B-plus” average on the PK with 88.5 and 89.3 percent success rates, respectively. Their power plays are also in a similar class, hovering in the middle of the NHL pack with Edmonton converting 17.9 percent of the time and Boston clicking on 16.3 percent of its chances.

    If either party can penetrate the other’s penalty kill, especially in a Thomas-Khabibulin card, it could spell a critical, psychological influence on the complexion of the game.

    As a semi-related side note, the Bruins and Oilers are two of only seven NHL teams who have still not allowed a shorthanded goal on the season.

Starting and Finishing

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    Defensively speaking, the first period has been the Oilers’ forte. For the Bruins, not so much.

    Edmonton is the stingiest of all NHL teams with only three goals-against in the opening stanza while Boston has authorized 12 of its 30 opposing goals before the first intermission.

    On the flipside, the Oilers’ moat tends to get shallower by the period, having allowed 10 out 21 total enemy strikes within the third period. The Bruins have accumulated 19 of their 39 goals in that particular frame.

    In addition, Edmonton is a league-worst 1-2-2 when leading after the first period.

Stealing More Confidence

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    The Bruins, still mired in the lower echelon of the Eastern Conference, are gradually improving their posture and self-assurance. Already, four of their 12 total points have come at the expense of the Northeast Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.

    With another surprise top dog in the Northwest-leading Oilers, Boston has a chance to seize a little more extra traction along with another two-point package.