The decision was made long ago to get Anton Khudobin into a game early, and it’s tough to get much earlier than the second game of the season. Having played as well in his first start as Cam Ward played in his, Khudobin gives the Carolina Hurricanes some interesting goalie decisions to make ahead.
There is no goalie controversy brewing after Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, merely the first partnership of equals the Hurricanes have had in net for a long time. Khudobin, largely unbothered, made a few key saves among his 17 in the kind of do-no-harm performance that only builds confidence in a backup.
Ward, who played well in Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings, will surely get the start Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Penguins. After that, who knows?
One school of thought would say Ward needs the work, because he is still the No. 1 guy and the schedule has only one back-to-back in the first 10 games. The other would argue that Khudobin played well enough Sunday to deserve another shot sooner rather than later.
For a hockey coach, it’s the best kind of problem to have. Muller even laughed when asked about it.
“We said we would do it one game at a time right now,” Muller said. “We’ve got tough opponents coming up, two explosive offenses and then a back-to-back with L.A. coming back here. We really wanted to not put it on paper too early, but use both of them early on here to stay fresh and see how it evolves.”
Of all the changes the Hurricanes made this offseason – rebuilding the defense, adding veteran forward Radek Dvorak, giving roster spots to deserving young players like Brett Sutter, Riley Nash and Brett Bellemore – none has bigger potential than Khudobin, signed as a free agent after backing up Tuukka Rask for the Boston Bruins last season.
If the Hurricanes can get 20 starts out of Khudobin, and he can win half of them, it changes everything. It keeps Ward fresher and sharper, especially if the season extends into the playoffs. And if it puts a little more pressure on Ward to play well enough to stay in net, that’s all the better.
In years and coaches past, this game – at home, against the Flyers, only the Hurricanes’ second game in 10 days – would have been a lead-pipe lock for Ward to start. As would Tuesday at the Penguins. And Thursday at the Washington Capitals. And Friday at home against the Los Angeles Kings, a back-to-back, but the difficult kind where the No. 1 guy may play both games.
Under those circumstances, it’s possible the backup might not get a sniff until the second half of the Colorado-Minnesota back-to-back in the middle of the State Fair road trip on Oct. 25, 11 games into the season. It’s different with Khudobin. If anyone was surprised he got his turn so quickly, Khudobin wasn’t.
“I always expect to play and it doesn’t matter when it happens,” Khudobin said. “I just have to be ready anytime. If the coach will give me the chance, I have to be ready, no matter how early or how late.”
He’s also the first backup goalie who is realistically competing for starting time here to begin the season since, arguably, Tom Barrasso in the fall of 2001. He earned that right in the preseason and he only bolstered his case Sunday.
Muller has decisions to make going forward, but at this point, given the play of Ward and Khudobin so far, there’s no wrong answer.