Cracking Khudobin: How Lightning have solved Stars goalie

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EDMONTON, Alberta — 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.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.