Saturday, October 8, 2011

Khudobin’s humanity was exploited in opener

Statistically speaking, Friday night’s 4-1 drawback against the St. John’s IceCaps was not quite the worst installment of Anton Khudobin’s still-brief Providence Bruins portfolio.

Perceptively speaking, though, it was easy enough to pinpoint. Between the pipes for all four St. John’s strikes while repelling a mere 27 stabs while never going off for a delayed penalty or extra man, Khudobin’s single-night transcript read as follows: 60 minutes-played, a 4.00 goals-against average and a .871 save-percentage.

Odds are a substantial core of Friday’s Dunkin Donuts Center masses was the same audience that chanted “Re-sign Anton!” after Khudobin turned in a season-high 43 saves, including 24 in the third period, to win last year’s play-for-pride season finale against Manchester.

Half a year later, some of those Bruins buffs may be having flashbacks to Tim Thomas of 2009 and Tuukka Rask of 2010. In back-to-back years, those two Providence alumni and current Boston backstops took a turn submitting an otherworldly campaign to firmly grip the starting job before self-destructing in the subsequent season opener.

Remember? On Oct. 1, 2009, four months removed from a Vezina Trophy, Thomas endured a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals. Before long, the operative slogan around TD Garden was “Tuukka Time” as Rask succeeded Thomas as the consensus starter and the NHL’s leader in two key goaltending categories.

Lo and behold, the roles reversed at last year’s NHL Premiere in Prague. Rask was singed as part of a 5-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes and Thomas stepped in to pitch a 3-0 shutout and salvage a split of the European series. By season’s end, Thomas had more than restored his starter’s status.

Because he was breaking in a new slate for the 2011-12 season on Friday, it is easy enough to fret and second-guess that Khudobin hype. Maybe that 9-4-1 run between his acquisition and last year’s curtain-drop is not so indicative of his capabilities after all.

But upon further review of his 2010-11 game log, nights like this year’s icebreaker are bound to happen from time to time. In fact, one start and two nights before his epic dolphin show against Manchester, Khudobin had a slightly worse GAA (4.04) and save-percentage (.867) than he did against St. John’s.

The key difference there was that it was still a winning effort. That night—April 8, to be precise—the P-Bruins deleted a 2-0 deficit and subsisted on a five-goal romp to hold off Portland, 5-4.

The Pirates were also liable for a five-goal, 30-shot dismantling of Khudobin as part of a 5-4 decision in favor of Portland last March 12. That was Khudobin’s first loss with Providence and snapped a personal, carry-over five-game winning streak.

Out of 50 total ventures with the P-Bruins and Houston Aeros last season, Khudobin allowed more than three goals on five occasions. That happened seven times the year prior, when he garnered a spot on the PlanetUSA All-Star team.

And Friday’s collision with the IceCaps could claim a couple of asterisks. Khudobin was fortified by a collectively unripe defensive sextet who had played a combined 250 AHL games in their career. Both Andrew Bodnarchuk and Nathan McIver continue to be indefinitely unavailable with their respective injuries while Matt Bartkowski is on emergency recall to Boston.

In addition, unlike those arm-wrestling bouts with Portland, offensive support was lacking. The Bruins took half of their 22 total shots on goal in the first period, putting only one behind veteran St. John’s stopper David Aebischer. Afterwards, they ran a pattern of stalling for the first three quarters of a stanza, then crammed in vain to supplement 3-1 and 4-1 deficits.

And for what it’s worth, the IceCaps are comprised primarily of former Manitoba Moose and former Chicago Wolves, two Western Conference teams that habitually battered Khudobin in recent years.

Conversely, the Worcester Sharks are on tap next for a Sunday afternoon bout at The Dunk.

In three games against Worcester last year, Khudobin went 2-1-0 with single-game save-percentages of .941, .952 and .955. Out of 17 games wearing a Spoked-P so far, those have been the fifth-, third- and single-best performances.