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Anderson: Bruins' Khudobin bringing throwback vibe to goalie controversy

Ty Anderson
November 23, 2017 - 5:24 am

What I’m about to say may sound crazy, but I’m already here, so why not: We’ve officially hit The Tim Thomas Point with Bruins netminder Anton Khudobin.

This goes beyond their similar-looking styles as undersized battlers willing to stop a puck with their beard if that’s what it’lll take to keep their team in a game, too.

I just don’t know how else to describe what we’re currently seeing from the 31-year-old backup, really. Especially after a season-high 40 saves and stops on all but one of 11 shootout attempts against in a survive-it-all shootout win over the Devils on Wednesday.

It just seems that every single time you expect Khudobin to fall back to reality, the gregarious netminder that'll have more fun talking to you about sharks than hockey steps up and delivers an even better performance than he did the day before. Khudobin’s latest was more than the sexy 40 spot, too, as he came through with countless game-saving stops. (Those game-changing saves are something that Cassidy claimed the Bruins simply haven’t got enough of from Tuukka Rask this season, by the way.) Khudobin was at his most confident to date, as well, with actual staredowns tossed the way of those that dared try to score against him in the shootout. It’s a zone seldom seen this early in the season, and proof of a legitimate heater from Khudobin.

That’s why you’d be a fool to even consider taking him out of the Boston net entering the most three-game test of the season for the Bruins, with Black Friday's matinee against the Penguins set to kick off a three-game homestand also featuring games against the Oilers and Lightning. 

Even if this risks upsetting Rask further, which is something that Cassidy briefly and somewhat alluded to as being the case when talking to the media before Wednesday’s win, Khudobin has elevated himself into a consistent ‘must-start’ sort of situation.

Speaking as one of the most ardent Rask defenders, it’s just tough to care about Rask’s hurt feelings when Khudobin has done nothing to warrant sitting him down and/or run the risk of him cooling down. Khudobin’s actually refusing to give you a reason to sit him, if anything. Do you have a better explanation for a three-game win streak (their first of the year) that came with ‘Dobby’ stopping all but four of 107 shots faced? Yeah, me neither, but I know it’s not something the B’s should mess with in a results-oriented business, as a .963 segment outweighs anybody’s hurt feelings every day of the week.

Also, let’s be real: Rask is familiar with what’s going on around him. He has to be. He’s already lived it from all possible angles. The then-babyfaced Rask was the one that stole a seemingly locked down starting gig from the reigning Vezina-winning Thomas around this time back in 2009-10, only to lose it the following season and watch Thomas backstop (and then some) the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.

This feels a little bit like that, too, although I do want to stress the ‘little’ part of that.

This feels like 2009 in the sense that the highly-paid starter has struggled to get going and has yet to get consistent goal support from an offensively-limited group. The $5 million Thomas began the 2009 season at 5-6-1 and with the Bruins having scored just 24 goals for him. The $7 million Rask has started this year 3-7-2 and with just 25 goals of support. The 2017 tie-in comes with the B’s simply needing to ride the hot hand to stay on pace with the rest of the East, which eventually paved the way for Rask’s first real starter experience and a second-round appearance back in 2010. (The B’s have climbed three spots in the East’s standings during Khudobin’s three-game streak.)

And this feels like 2010 because you have a goaltender that the team tried to basically give away coming back to show you that he can still be a reliable option. It was just last year that Khudobin went unclaimed on waivers and struggled in Providence -- and even when he returned to the NHL the B’s were still scouring the trade market for a deadline upgrade behind Rask -- before he returned from the dead. It was in 2010 that the Bruins tried to essentially give Thomas away during the offseason, only to find out that nobody was willing to give up much for a “declining one-year wonder.” Times have changed, but the B’s are pleased they opted to not sell at all versus sell low in the case of each.

It also helps that both of these goalies -- the 2010 Thomas and 2017 Khudobin -- were or have been essentially playing with house money after the Bruins were unable to ditch their contracts. Thomas did it with the craziest wire-to-wire season -- 1999 Pedro and 2007 Brady are probably the closest comparables for me as a 25-year-old Boston sports, uh, person -- I’ve ever seen. Khudobin, meanwhile, has done it with some undeniable success under Cassidy, with 12 wins and a .931 save percentage in 15 games played since Cassidy took over for Claude Julien last February. That .931 save percentage is the second-best save percentage among goalies with at least 15 NHL games played over that span, trailing the Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky and his .938 save percentage by just .007 percentage points. Bobrovsky, by the way, won the 2017 Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie.

Khudobin is still playing with that house money, too, as the club’s $1.2 million man in net. That alleviates almost all pressure when asked to perform for a good-not-great team, and it shows with the way that Khudobin approaches his games in the crease as well as the team's play in front of him. His situation is entirely different than the one Rask, a player the Bruins have another $21 million invested in for three more years after this, routinely finds himself in as the team's second-highest paid player and with declining numbers. 

At the same time, it would be dumb to suggest that a strong 15-game sample under Cassidy from Khudobin should change the fact that Rask is still your franchise’s No. 1 goaltender for the future.

But this is a situation that will probably tell us more about the 30-year-old Rask than it will Khudobin. Over six years removed from his last legitimate competition for starts in the Boston crease, it will be Rask’s response to a continued and sustained push from Khudobin that’ll let us know if this is more like 2009-10 or 2010-11. Can he compete and reward Cassidy for going back to him? Does he still want to compete for his job or has complacency taken hold since leading the B's to a Cup Final appearance in 2013? These responses are beyond important when you're talking about a player of Rask's salary and skill-set, and are certainly worth finding out the answer to given their investment. It’s only then that you’ll know the role that No. 40 will reprise for a Boston club expected to make even more noise if and when their healthy bodies continue to file back into frame, too, and where Khudobin’s career-best game -- if sustained, even with a slight dip -- fits into the mix.

All of this needs to be answered while full well acknowledging that Khudobin has a long, long ways to go to prove capable of hanging with a Vezina-winning goaltender for an entire year or successfully pulling off the Full Thomas and stealing a job away from the more talented Rask, too.

But this throwback kind of goalie competition, and knowing how these storylines tend to play out (they’re dramatic and engaging if nothing else), is worthy of grabbing your attention.

It also secured some much needed points for a team missing the real version of their No. 1 goalie, and my spot in a movement I never thought I’d join: Khudobinsanity.

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