Photo: Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press

There are only two names you need to know to understand the meteoric performance of the Edmonton Oilers this young season. Both of these names have taken the team, and the league, by near-complete surprise; and in one case, has most people scratching their heads.

The names are: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nikolai Khabibulin. The 18-year-old rookie and the inconsistent netminder 20 years his senior have been the catalysts for Edmonton rising near the top of the Western Conference standings.

The Edmonton Oilers’ patience has paid off. They come into the United Center tonight sitting atop the Northwest Division, and eager for some payback against a Chicago team that has manhandled them over the past several years.

First on the holy-crap list is the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, 18-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The kid came like a rocket-propelled grenade out of Burnaby, B.C. with a stellar debut with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, logging 65 points in 67 games. And as if he had anything else to prove, his second season with the team he fired in 31 goals and added 75 assists (and showed his mettle with 51 penalty minutes on top of that). Number one pick, you’re damn right…

Following a solid performance with the Oilers in pre-season, Nugent-Hopkins was kept with the team for the 9-game let’s-see-how-he-does period that is allotted to Junior-eligible players trying to make the NHL. In his third regular season NHL game, the kid scored his first one. Sorry, his first NHL hat-trick, that is. And when the time came to make the decision about whether to send him back to Red Deer, only an idiot would have bought the kid a plane ticket.

As an aside, when you have a moment go on the Oilers’ site and take a look at the kid’s stats from his season with the Burnaby club in 2007-08. Bring a change of underwear. We are, in a very literal sense, talking Gretzky-esque numbers.

The decision has paid off by the truck-load. Nugent-Hopkins sits second on the team in scoring, notching 13 points in 16 games, and shows no signs of stopping. The kid is the real deal, and despite looking like Mike Brander from “Just Friends,” he is a dangerous weapon at nearly any point on the ice.

The other name Chicago fans will know quite well. In 2008-09 the veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin backstopped the Blackhawks to the first visit to the playoffs in more years than an Original Six team should ever endure. That playoff run came to an end when Khabibulin went down with an injury, turning the starting goaltender position over to Cristobal Huet, who sank the team in 120 minutes of execrable netminding. Khabibulin signed a 4-year deal with Edmonton later that summer, but hasn’t played enough games to add up to even one full season since then.

In his 65 starts over the last two seasons, Khabibulin has amassed a 17-41-8 record — some of the worst hockey of his career. Injuries have been a major problem, as has some legal trouble stemming from a drunken driving charge in Arizona that saw him spend two weeks in the slammer earlier this year. That behind him, he appears to be on a mission to show the league, and perhaps himself, that he’s still got it.

In 10 starts and 2 relief performances, Khabibulin is 7-1-4, facing 277 shots and allowing (again, change of underwear coming…) 12 goals. That’s good for a .957 save percentage and a 1.18 goals against. Both of those numbers are #1 in the league, and when you’re talking about goaltenders who have 10 or more starts, nobody else is within striking distance. If Khabibulin is in net, it’s going to take a charging rhino to get past him. And frankly, I think even in that situation, it’s probably money wasted betting on the rhino.

Where has this guy been? Are we seeing the resurrection of the Khabibulin that earned the Tampa Bay Lightning a Stanley Cup back in 2003-04? I have a feeling he’s going to keep us guessing on those questions, and simply let his play speak for itself tonight.

Chicago has won 9 of the last 12 meetings with this team, including a 9-2 buggering on the Oilers’ home ice in December of 2008. The two teams split the season series last year, but none of that matters. Chicago’s chances of getting past this Oilers squad depends on which team shows up to play them: the Blackhawks who got turned inside-out by Vancouver last week, or the Blackhawks who stood up to the Calgary Flames in fine fashion two nights ago.

Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville has spent the last two games experimenting (to use a charitable term) with the lineup to try and get that team chemistry going again. Using the Columbus game as the starting point, we saw Marian Hossa join Jonathan Toews on the first line, Patrick Kane spend some time back on the wing with Patrick Sharp at center, and Marcus Kruger stepping in as the 3rd-line pivot while Dave Bolland nurses a lower-body injury. Additionally, competent defensemen Sean O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto have spent the last two games in the press box, while plainly incompetent gorilla John Scott has dressed for action.

The only scenario in which this makes any sense is that the team is positioning Scott for a possible trade. Otherwise keeping O’Donnell and Lepisto out of the lineup is not only foolish on its face, it creates a gaping defensive liability for the team. With Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo and Steve Montador on board, the Blackhawks have their fighters. Scott is now an unnecessary cog in this machine: showcasing him in some games to boost his trade value has to be GM Stan Bowman’s intention. Otherwise there’s a good chance he and Coach Qstache have completely lost their minds.

The Columbus game was a good start; the Calgary game was a marked improvement. If Q intends to keep these lines together, the chemistry will improve. There was a little chickens-with-their-heads-cut-off going on in Ohio, which tapered significantly with the Flames in town. The Blackhawks are going to have to build on that cohesion and focus on solid team play if they are going to get past this white-hot Edmonton club.

Administrative nonsense: Khabibulin is not the only former Blackhawk we will see this evening: tough-guy winger Ben Eager and still-underperforming defenseman Cam Barker will both be in an Oilers uniform. On the injury front, Dave Bolland is still sidelined for Chicago, while Oilers Darcy Hordichuk, Taylor Fedun and Ryan Whitney will not dress. Expect Corey Crawford in net for the ‘Hawks and Khabibulin for Edmonton.

Puck drop is an early Sunday evening start, 6pm at the United Center. The game will be televised on WGN TV, also broadcast on WGN AM-720 radio; XM subscribers should scroll to channel 212; Sirius Premiere customers can find the game on channel 211.

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