By all rights, the goaltending storyline for a Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars should be revolving around Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop.
Bishop, after all, had been Tampa’s starter in its 2015 run to the final. He was eventually forced out by the tremendous play of his backup, Vasilevskiy.
Enter Anton Khudobin.
The cheery Russian, thriving in Dallas’s two-goalie system, stole the spotlight with a Game 1 performance for the ages. He faced 36 shots, 22 in the third period, as Dallas earned a 4-1 win.
“I try to focus on the next shot. How many there will be? I don’t really think about it,” said Khudobin.
He’ll be back in net Monday night for Game 2 at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. Overall, he is 13-6-0 with a .923 save percentage and 2.54 goals-against average this post-season, and his numbers improved as he went along. In his last six games, he’s 5-1 with a .954 save mark and 1.57 average despite a flip-floppy style that stands in contrast to, well, just about every other goalie in the NHL.
“Don’t get wrapped up in styles. Get wrapped up in the job description: Stop the puck. He does everything he can to stop the puck,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness. “I’m very happy for him to get the recognition he is now. Long overdue.
“You don’t go anywhere in this league without great goaltending. You can talk about defensive structures, but you’ve got to have someone back there who gives you a chance to win every game. There are going to be breakdowns. It’s an imperfect game. You need a great goaltender to keep you in there. I’m happy and proud of Khudobin, the way he’s battling in the net.”
If the NHL is a copycat league and the Stars go on to win the Cup, then one thing other general managers might want to look at is a two-goalie system, especially if Vasilevskiy falters in the final with Tampa having relied so heavily on him.
Lightning backup Curtis McElhinney has not played a minute in the playoffs, while Dallas has been quite comfortable with backup Khudobin having taken over the net after an injury to Bishop.
“I really think that’s the way our game is going,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “The travel, the back-to-backs, the parity in the league. Every night is a playoff game in this league.
“The difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs is one win a month. If you can get a goalie tandem that can win you an extra game or two every month, that gets you into the playoffs and gives you the chance to make it to the Stanley Cup final.”
To some critics, goaltending has been the undoing of the Maple Leafs, who have relied perhaps too heavily on Frederik Andersen, now mentioned in trade rumours.
Outside of Tampa, most teams that went deep in these playoffs had two reliable goalies. The Islanders used both Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov. The Golden Knights went with Robin Lehner and Marc-André Fleury.
And quality teams that didn’t have reliable depth in net — such as Colorado, Boston, Calgary and Edmonton — didn’t go as far as they might have expected.
Khudobin is a career backup — comfortable in that role, but also a winner with a regular-season record of 99-76-25. He’s never played more than 41 games in a season and averaged 27 a year over the last eight.
Bishop is Dallas’s true No. 1, but has a history of injuries and is hurt now.
“Bishop is a big part of our success, but he’s unfit to play, so we have to go from there,” said Nill. “He’s been in the dressing room with the guys, cheering them on, working hard in practice.”
But the Stars would not have made it this far without Khudobin, And as things stand, they are one win closer to the Stanley Cup than Tampa is because of him.
“His play has been speaking for itself,” said Dallas defenceman Jamie Oleksiak. “He’s been great for us. It looks like whenever he’s out there, he’s just having fun. We’re feeding off that energy.”
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