By Matt Kalman
BOSTON (CBS) — The Buffalo Sabres figured out how to beat Anton Khudobin just a period and a half into the game Saturday.
Now one has to figure the rest of the NHL will catch on as well, and one has to wonder what will help the Bruins, short of Tuukka Rask returning from his concussion, prevent more disasters like their 5-4 overtime loss at TD Garden.
The Bruins led 3-0 and 4-1 but failed to capture two points against a team that had won once in its previous eight games.
After being outshot by the Bruins 13-6 in the first period, the Sabres outshot the Bruins 36-18 the rest of the way, including 6-0 in overtime. There wasn’t a shot they didn’t think they could score on, and who could blame them? Early in the third period defenseman Matt Tennyson made a harmless shoot-in from outside the blue line and Khudobin turned it into a scoring chance by dropping the rebound in the slot for a Benoit Pouliot shot that required a pad save.
Then the tying goal went of Evander Kane’s stick and Torey Krug’s skate … but what Khudobin was doing to try to stop the trickling puck would have to be explained by a yoga instructor.
After Khudobin started the season 2-0-0, some were coming out of the woodwork to compare him, in stature and style, to Tim Thomas. Yeah, maybe he’s Tim Thomas – on acid. Because the way he plays, and especially the way he played against Buffalo, one has to assume Khudobin is seeing three or four pucks out there. And maybe they’re even disguised as white rabbits.
The sprawling and battling, the snow angels, and the rolling and diving outside of the blue paint are all well and good … when they’re done as a reaction to the puck, not in anticipation of a shot that may not come. Before Buffalo tied the score 4-4, Khudobin made a skate save on Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella’s slap shot from the blue line, but the goaltender had his arm up like he had no idea where the puck was coming from.
Khudobin, unfortunately, didn’t see too upset with his play, even as he was clearly overreacting and flailing out of position in reaction to the Sabres’ shot barrage.
“It wasn’t that much difficult, I like shots, like probably every other goalie,” he said. “But they were crashing the net. They were going hard. There were a lot of deflections, a lot of rebounds, a lot of scrums in front of the net, which were … that’s the dangerous part, not just the shots.”
The youthful Bruins, with five rookies in the lineup, needed calm, or at least controlled mayhem, which was Thomas’ specialty. Instead the Bruins got Whirlwind Khudobin, who two nights earlier survived the Canucks’ best comeback attempt because Vancouver lacked the weapons and the desire of the Sabres . The Canucks tested Khudobin with just 29 shots, and couldn’t prevent the Bruins from continuing to score in a 6-3 Boston victory.
That game was a hint that the Bruins might have to play “first team to score five” while Khudobin’s filling in for Rask, and the Buffalo loss proved it.
“Erratic,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, sounding like he was playing Password when given the name Khudobin to comment on. “He battles. We love that about him. He battled to the end. Certainly made his share of saves. We need to be better in front of him. But there were times that, there were fires that needed to be put out that shouldn’t have been necessary. But that happens sometimes.”
Maybe the biggest fire came in overtime, when the Bruins were hemmed in their own end while the Sabres completed several line changes. Risto Ristolainen fired a shot that should’ve died in Khudobin’s glove but for the umpteenth time turned into a rebound. Play continued, culminating with Ryan O’Reilly’s game-winning goal while Krug, who had been stuck on the ice for 2:15 straight, cross checked Ristolainen into Khudobin in desperation.
The video review denied the Bruins the goaltender interference call they sought, and they were left to wonder how they’re going to survive Rask’s indefinite absence. If bottom feeders like Vancouver and Buffalo can drop three and five goals, respectively, on Khudobin, what will San Jose, Los Angeles and Columbus do in the games ahead?
Those who’ve claimed Rask isn’t a strong No. 1 anyway, might be suffering from head trauma worse than Rask right now. He’s only four seasons removed from his Vezina Trophy campaign. He’s had back-to-back .915 save percentage seasons, playing through upheaval in the personnel in front of him, teams that couldn’t score enough to support him and, don’t forget, he had an injured groin all last season. But Rask, for whatever reason, is one of the Bruins players some observers won’t forgive even when they’re playing hurt.
Khudobin’s 31 now and the dream of him developing into a No. 1 has passed. Playing two to three times a month, against select opponents, is his lot in life and – like during the final few months of last season – he may thrive in those circumstances. But unless he can suddenly figure out how to not make every offensive chance in front of him into some sort of Macarena mixed with break dancing, he’s not someone who’s going to make Cassidy think twice about riding Rask for the long haul.
As far as what’s in the Bruins’ immediate future, Cassidy may have to consider pulling back the reins on his go-go strategies that increase the risk of Khudobin being exposed. Or Zane McIntyre may have to get yet another shot to prove he belongs in the NHL.
The wait for Rask’s return could become intolerable, and may cost the Bruins the next step in their development process.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.