EDMONTON, Alberta - Born when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union, Anton Khudobin just wanted to make it to the NHL one day. Little did he dream of winning the Stanley Cup.
When he accomplished his first childhood goal and got a front-row seat for a deep playoff run practicing with the Boston Bruins in 2011, everything changed.
“When I realized it’s not easy to get there, it’s not easy to get even to the finals, I start thinking it would be a great accomplishment at some point to get there and win the Cup,” Khudobin said.
He and the Dallas Stars are three victories away thanks in large part to Khudobin's play in his first postseason as a starting goaltender at age 34. While the history of the chase for the Stanley Cup is full of hot goalies carrying teams through the playoffs, the guy affectionately known as “Dobby” is one of the unlikeliest heroes in net after a career as a backup and a style of play that hasn't been seen much in the league for decades.
"I think he surprised me the most," said Nikolai Khabibulin, the only Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup. "He's really not like almost all of the goalies right now. If I had to describe him in a few words, he's like a modern version of Martin Brodeur. He plays totally different than most of the guys nowadays, and I think part of it is his age. When you get older, it's harder to get some new things that younger guys are bringing in. I would think that he believes in what he's doing and it's been working now. I think he has a ton of confidence and he keeps you in it."
The Stars lead the Tampa Bay Lightning after one game of the final and are oozing with confidence because of Khudobin. Listen to coach Rick Bowness and his players talk and they'll repeatedly say they're not surprised by this performance because they've seen it from him the past two seasons.
“He’s such a competitive guy, he’s such a battler in the net, he’s such a great teammate, so I’m very happy for him to get the recognition that he’s getting now,” Bowness said. “Long overdue.”
But who saw this coming? Khudobin had faced 13 playoff shots — all in relief — in his NHL playoff career before August and has gone 13-6 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Retired goalie-turned-NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes compared Khudobin's style to that of 2011 Cup champion Tim Thomas or six-time Vezina Trophy winner and Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek. In Game 1 alone, Khudobin made saves with his head, shoulder, blocker and just about every other part of his body.
"I’m actually having fun right now to watch that he is not robotic and he doesn’t do what everybody does," said Evgeni Nabokov, goalie coach for the San Jose Sharks who has the most wins of any Russian in NHL history. “I was actually laughing the other day seeing him make the save with glove and blocker. I haven’t seen that probably in 15 years. I like that. To me, it’s just the goaltending. That’s what you do.”
Nabokov doesn't like the term “unorthodox" to describe Khudobin but rather says that he'll do whatever it takes to stop the puck. What's perhaps best about Khudobin is his ability to make the timeliest of saves when the game hangs in the balance, like the third period of Game 1 when Tampa Bay outshot Dallas 22-2.
“He’s a very good goalie,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. “When he’s on, he’s on. I thought we generated some pretty good chances and he made some really big saves.”
Those saves, 596 to be exact, the most any goalie has this postseason, have Khudobin firmly in the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. All in a day's work in the eyes of the gregarious man who is beloved by teammates.
“I try to focus on the next shot,” Khudobin said.
The Stars love that about Khudobin, who is technically in the final for the second time after backing up Tuukka Rask with Boston in 2013. Center Tyler Seguin played with Khudobin on the Bruins and is thrilled to see this performance.
Just don't say he's surprised.
“I don’t know if you ever think about the run he could have in him, but you definitely see the compete he has in him, the passion he has and just the great teammate he is,” Seguin said. “He’s a hard worker, he’s always had a great work ethic in practice and I’ve known him for a long time back in the Boston days, so I know he’s got the experience. He’s been around for a Cup run, he’s seen it all, so I wouldn’t say this was unexpected. But it’s definitely obviously great to see.”
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