EDMONTON — At his first World Junior Championship, when Anton Khudobin was an 18-year-old Kazhak-born teenager entrusted with the Russian goal in Fargo North Dakota, he became the answer to a trivia question.
Under the Jeopardy category, ‘Russian goalies chased from their nets by Team Canada,’ Khudobin was the goalie in that lockout world juniors gold-medal game when he and Alex Ovechkin faced a Canadian roster that harboured names like Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and about 10 more players who would go on to successful NHL careers.
“It was a really fast game, and they were shooting from everywhere — which I wasn’t used to. I never played over here, and they were shooting bad-angle shots even. From everywhere,” Khudobin recalled in an earlier interview. “They were all over us. It was like a nightmare. Like I was sleeping. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
“After that, I went to the bench. They pull me.”
Some 16 years later, Khudobin has firmly established himself as perhaps the best backup goalie in the National Hockey League and, just as possibly, the most well-liked by teammates. A road that has wound through five organizations — he played for the Boston Bruins twice — has certified Khudobin as the Dallas Stars No. 1 goaltender, with Ben Bishop falling to injury.
It turns out the little backup with the thick Russian accent and wicked sense of humour also has game, carrying the Stars past Calgary, Colorado, and on Monday night’s opening game of Round 3, a 1-0 shutout of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“Dobby won the game for us,” said defenceman John Klingberg, who zipped home the only goal just 2:36 into the game. From there, the old Stars showed up to nurse home a 1-0 victory, buckling down a Game 1 win while looking nothing like the team that had just finished a 57-goal, seven-game series against Colorado.
“This is going to be a different series,” said Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer. “We haven’t played one of the top two defensive teams in the league yet, so we’re going to have to get our head around that and find a way to create offence. It’s not going to look or feel like the last series or the Chicago series.”
Dallas was the NHL’s second-stingiest defensive team this season, and it is moments like these when a player like Khudobin — who stays out after practice, keeps the guys loose on all those busses and planes over the course of a season, who never makes a peep when the No. 1 guy sends him to the bench week after week — can use some of that currency.
“I like to have fun with the guys, to just enjoy the practices and the games,” he explained. “Even if I am not playing I try to protect my guys, try to help them whenever I can. I can bring them water, or orange juice, during the intermissions. That’s normal for me. I just try to be helpful.
“If I’m not playing, of course I’m thinking about it. But at the same time I don’t want to be cancer in the room.”
On Sunday night, Dallas limited Vegas to just a dozen shots on goal in the opening 40 minutes. From there, Khudobin kept the door locked through the final 20:00, as a Vegas team with the luxury of playing a so-called backup named Marc-Andre Fleury got shut out by Khudobin, whose backup is a kid named Jake Oettinger who has never played an NHL minute.
“It’s great, you know, when guys are battling in front of you,” said an appreciative Khudobin of a concerted Stars defensive effort. “When they’re blocking the shots, when they have bruises, laying down (to block shots). When they keep hitting our guys and they keep playing and playing and never stop… It’s unbelievable.”
“When you have a guy who is going to work every game, every practice,” offered defenceman Jamie Oleksiak, “who is always out there looking like he’s having the time of his life? The D corps, we thrive off of that. We feed off of his energy.”
Vegas sleepwalked through the first two periods of Game 1. But they also found a foe that is vastly different than the Vancouver team that took them the distance in Round 2.
“This team is a lot bigger, a lot heavier,” compared defenceman Nate Schmidt. “Up and down their forward lineup they have guys who can get in and create space for other guys on the team.”
And if you get past them, you have a 34-year-old survivor that his teammates will do anything for.
It’s the kind of story you want to cheer for.