EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — The goaltender known as ”Dobby” has lost some of his magic in the Stanley Cup Final.
After three rounds of dominant play put him in the playoff MVP mix, Anton Khudobin has allowed the Tampa Bay Lightning to score eight goals over the past two games to take a 2-1 series lead on the Dallas Stars. Solving Khudobin is a combination of the Lightning making it harder on him in multiple ways, perhaps finding the right place to shoot the puck at, Khudobin playing the most hockey of his NHL career and the Stars breaking down in front of him – and it might be enough to help Tampa Bay lift the Cup.
”There were three shots that beat him blocker side in Game 3. … Have they figured something out?” said retired goaltender Brian Boucher, who’s rinkside inside the bubble as an NBC Sports analyst. ”It might be a little fatigue and it also just might be that, you know what, Tampa’s got a really good team that’s got some great offensive weapons, that’s got some guys that play with some real grit and sandpaper that’s wearing down some of the Dallas defense and they’re exposing them right now a little bit.”
Khudobin posted a .920 save percentage in his first 19 games this postseason and set a Cup final record making 22 stops in the third period of the Stars’ Game 1 win. He has allowed eight goals on 60 shots – an .867 save percentage – in five periods since and got pulled after the second period of Game 3 only because coach Rick Bowness wanted to rest him with a back-to-back coming up.
The Stars don’t see Khudobin as a problem, and he’ll be back in net for Game 4 Friday night.
”We need to play better in front of him,” Bowness said. ”He doesn’t have to do anything better. He doesn’t have to do anything different. He just has to keep doing what he’s doing, and in terms of our team, it would help him a lot if we didn’t make it so easy for the other team to play against us sometimes.”
That’s why it’s such a multifaceted situation. It starts with Tampa Bay, the most talented team Khudobin and the Stars have faced since hockey resumed with a core and coach who have been here before.
NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who tended goal in the NHL for 11 seasons, thinks it’s a product of the Lightning practicing with Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy and generating better scoring chances.
”When you give those players (on) Tampa that type of time and space and when they fight to get that type of time and space, it’s tough,” Weekes said. ”Those are Grade A looks that Tampa’s getting now. Here’s the thing: Tampa’s not settling really for just plays off the rush. They’re not settling for that, and they’re not settling for like long-distance shots off nice passing plays. They’re skating the extra 5 feet, the extra 8 feet to get to a more prime shooting area.”
The Lightning learned their lesson from Vegas’ downfall in the Western Conference final, when players peppered Khudobin with some easy-to-stop shots and got frustrated. Tampa Bay did that trying to mount a comeback in the third period of Game 1, and Khudobin set a Cup Final record with 22 saves.
The onslaught started with two power-play goals early in Game 2 that got Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman going, and they’ve taken fewer shots to the outside that Khudobin can stop and build up his own confidence. They’re waiting it out for those Grade-A chances.
”You’d rather have 45 shots from the outside and everybody’s boxing out and there’s no second-chance opportunities,” Boucher said. ”The high-end players for Tampa, I do think in general these guys look for the better play. And really high skilled players, guys of high offensive IQ, they’re not just OK with getting the puck to the net.”
That’s why Barclay Goodrow‘s assertion that the Lightning are just getting the puck to the net more isn’t quite right. They put up five goals on 29 shots in Game 3 by getting to prime scoring areas.
Then there’s Khudobin himself. The 34-year-old had never started an NHL playoff game before August.
”I think the amount of hockey he’s played, eventually it catches up to you,” said Boucher, a veteran of 43 playoff games.
That’s not to take anything away from the Lightning, who adjusted well to Khudobin after their Game 1 loss. Point said the idea was ”trying to get to that net hard,” and he and his teammates are doing a good job of making the offensive zone a crowded mess.
”You’ve got to make it busy in front of the net,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. ”There’s one thing about screening shots, but you screen passes. Guys have been really good on faking shots and moving pucks and being deceptive around the net.”
Cooper between Games 2 and 3 was reticent for cracking Khudobin, saying, ”I’m not sitting here saying we’ve gotten to him.” Still, for many reasons, they have, and it may be the key to a championship.