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With the Bruins in the early stages of a schedule that from here offers precious little downtime, getting solid goaltending when starter Tuukka Rask sits figures to be a key and closely watched story line during this condensed season.
If Anton Khudobin keeps playing this way, Bruins fans won’t panic when seeing Rask on the bench, confident that there won’t be a noticeable drop-off in production.
Khudobin was charged on Thursday night with stopping a Toronto offense that had scored 14 goals in its last three games, all wins. He met the challenge, stopping 25 shots in the Bruins’ 4-2 win at TD Garden.
Losers of two straight games coming in, the Bruins were in search of a spark to stop the mini-slide. Khudobin, a 26-year-old Russian who has now appeared in all of 12 NHL games, was perhaps an unlikely candidate.
“It’s a big win for everybody. We lost a couple games, so we had to recover, get back on track,” Khudobin said. “We have to continue to win and keep getting points, because the schedule is getting tougher and tougher.”
Because of that, coach Claude Julien has maintained that Khudobin will be seeing plenty of action. Rask is the established starter, but the better Khudobin can play, the better the Bruins will be.
“It certainly makes our team feel a lot better when you know, no matter who you put in net, they’re going to give you a solid performance,” Julien said. “That’s what you want and you hope to get from your backup goaltender. He played well tonight.”
Getting the start for the second time in four games — he stopped 20 of 22 shots in Saturday’s 3-2 home win against the Lightning — Khudobin played a smart 60 minutes: consistent, great when he had to be, and giving up no bad goals.
Khudobin was at his best early in the game. With the Bruins handing the Maple Leafs a short-lived five-on-three advantage midway through the first period of a scoreless game because of penalties on Chris Kelly and Daniel Paille, Khudobin knew he’d get tested. He was, blocking a point-blank bid by Tyler Bozak after the puck hit the back boards and bounced straight toward the crease.
There was also a highlight-reel kick save on a shot by former Bruin Phil Kessel, who heard it from the Garden crowd every time he touched the puck. Khudobin denied Kessel with his right pad.
It helped Khudobin that the Bruins never played from behind. The Leafs tied it at 1 early in the second period during four-on-four play, when Nazem Kadri buried a perfect cross-ice pass from Clarke MacArthur. Khudobin stood little chance of making the save, but actually thought for an instant that he had.
“I was thinking I stopped that,” he said. “It hit my stick but it went into the net. Sometimes it’s going to be a save, sometimes a goal.”
Goals by Tyler Seguin and David Krejci staked Khudobin to a two-goal advantage, wiggle room that proved necessary when he let in his second shot of the night, a deflection off the stick of Jay McClement with a lot of traffic in front.
“That second goal you could see he was mad, he felt he should have had it,” Julien said. “But he made some real good saves for us the whole game. I thought he was solid.”
More importantly, the Bruins are playing with confidence when Khudobin is in the lineup. They’ve won four of his five starts, a 4-2 loss at Buffalo on Feb. 15 the exception.
“We have a lot of confidence in Anton,” said Patrice Bergeron, the game’s No. 1 star after a 3-point game (goal, two assists). “Tonight was another example of what he can give us.”
Experience will most certainly come, with the Bruins playing their final 27 games of the regular season over the next 51 days. Khudobin will get his chance whenever Rask needs a break to stay fresh. But even on those nights, the Bruins’ top netminder plays an important role.
“My teammates are always helping me, before the game, after the game. Tukes, he helps me, too,” Khudobin said. “Just by saying a couple good words.”