Practice was winding down when Cam Ward finally came onto the ice Friday, right about the time Anton Khudobin was exiting. Khudobin is expected to appear in his 11th game in 25 days on Saturday. Ward, who once carried that kind of workload for the Carolina Hurricanes, has become the forgotten man.
Since Khudobin returned from a lengthy injury of his own at the beginning of this month, the Carolina Hurricanes are 7-2-0 in the games he has started. In the two losses, they failed to score a goal. Among regular NHL starters, only two have a better save percentage than Khudobin’s .930, in a much smaller sample.
“Just play consistently, and every game, go there and try to get the win no matter what,” Khudobin said. “It’s always like this when you feel confidence in the guys and they feel confidence in the goalie, you put all those words together and you get the result.”
Even in those few appearances, Khudobin’s outstanding play has raised serious questions about the franchise’s future at the position. Is Khudobin, two years younger than Ward, a better long-term solution in goal? And does Ward’s contract, with a $6.3 million salary-cap hit through 2015-16, still make financial sense given his recent history of injuries and inconsistency?
It’s not a decision the Hurricanes have to make now, but it is one they have to start thinking about now. Khudobin will be a free agent this summer, and one of the most sought-after of the bunch if he continues to play like this. The Hurricanes can’t afford to re-sign Khudobin and keep Ward. At the moment, with Ward out, they’ll ride Khudobin as far as he can take them.
“He says he feels good and obviously he’s on a roll,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said, indicating Khudobin would play against the Ottawa Senators at noon Saturday. “He’s given us an opportunity to win hockey games so far when he’s gone into the net.”
Since Ward pulled up lame the morning after the New Year’s Eve comeback against the Montreal Canadiens, Khudobin has appeared in every Hurricanes game. His one would-be rest day, against the Tampa Bay Lightning last Sunday, was cut short after Justin Peters allowed three goals on seven shots to open the game.
None of the goals was directly Peters’ fault – the usually impeccable defensive pairing of Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera was atypically abysmal against the Lightning – which raises an interesting question: Does Khudobin make the miraculous look routine, or do the Hurricanes just play better defensively in front of him?
“I think so,” Khudobin said. “If you look at the shots, I don’t have a lot of shots against.”
As always, the answer is neither black nor white, because Khudobin has been making the kind of stops that no one expects a goalie to make on a regular basis, although it’s certainly nice when he does.
In Wednesday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers, with the Hurricanes up 1-0 in the second period, Andrej Meszaros flipped a quick backhand at the net through traffic while facing the other end. It would have been exactly the kind of fluky goal that has sunk the Hurricanes too often this season. Khudobin somehow found the puck and scrambled to get in front of it.
Khudobin isn’t just giving the Hurricanes a chance to win games, and by extension end their playoff drought. He’s forcing the Hurricanes to do some big-picture thinking about the future of the goaltending position at an unexpected time, with uncertain conclusions.