OTTAWA - When the games start for real in a week, most likely next Thursday at TD Garden, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron will lead the Black-and-Gold charge on the Bruins’ defense of the Stanley Cup.
On Thursday night, with the Bruins locked in to the No. 2 seed, their three most important players remained back in Boston, resting up for the games that count. They had earned that right.
“It’s been a long year,’’ said coach Claude Julien in explaining his decision. “They deserve it. Simple as that.’’
In retrospect, there could have been little chance for Thomas to be better than Anton Khudobin. The former Wild netminder, recalled from Providence Monday, sparkled in his Bruins debut. Khudobin stopped 44 shots to lead the Bruins to a 3-1 win before 20,500 at Scotiabank Place. It was his seventh NHL appearance.
Benoit Pouliot, Greg Zanon, and Milan Lucic beat Ben Bishop (24 saves) to power the offense.
“I felt good,’’ Khudobin said. “I got a couple shots the first couple minutes and I felt good. Guys helped me a lot from the start. [Marty] Turco talked to me. He said, ‘Let’s just go have some fun.’ ’’
The future is still unclear for Khudobin. Tuukka Rask was originally projected to miss the start of the playoffs because of a lower abdomen/groin strain suffered March 3. But Rask is recovering and has resumed skating. It’s possible Rask could be healthy and ready to serve as Thomas’s backup for Game 1.
If Rask isn’t fit for backup duty, Khudobin will be in uniform for Game 1 - and (shudder) on the ice if Thomas suffers an injury. Turco is not eligible for the playoffs.
For at least one game, Khudobin proved he’s capable to serve as an NHL goalie, regardless of the situation.
“There’s no doubt he was our best player tonight,’’ Julien said. “It was nice to see that. He’s been playing pretty well all year in Providence. There’s an opportunity that he might have to start with us in the playoffs. We don’t know whether Tuukka’s going to be ready or not. To give that kind of performance is certainly encouraging for us and for the whole team. Tonight was just proof that he’s a good goaltender. It’s very deserving for him to get the accolades today. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if the score might have been different.’’
The 5-foot-11-inch, 203-pound Khudobin doesn’t play a traditional butterfly style. He has some of Thomas in his game as an athletic, battle-ready goalie. Khudobin stood in contrast to the 6-7, 215-pound Bishop.
Khudobin, however, was flawless in his positioning. He was square to shooters all game, and quick enough to reposition himself for rebounds.
Khudobin was busy throughout the night. In the first, he turned back all 17 shots the Senators flung his way. In the second period, Khudobin foiled Nick Foligno three times, including twice on consecutive in-close shots.
The only puck that eluded Khudobin was an across-the-grain Jason Spezza snapper. Even that shot didn’t beat Khudobin cleanly. Spezza’s shot clanged off the left post, caromed off Khudobin’s backside, and crossed the goal line at 13:56 of the second.
Khudobin wasn’t fazed by Spezza’s goal. In the third, he bricked up his net. Khudobin made his best save during an Ottawa power play. Daniel Alfredsson has made a living baffling goalies with one-timers off the left half-boards. This time, after Alfredsson teed up one of his trademark slappers, Khudobin gloved the captain’s attempt at 8:25.
“That last shot on Alfredsson,’’ Khudobin deadpanned when asked if any stops stood out. “I think that was a pretty good save.’’
Beyond this season, Khudobin gives the Bruins some options. Khudobin is currently on a two-way contract. Next year, Khudobin will be on a one-way deal, meaning he will earn $875,000 whether he’s in Boston or Providence. Thomas will be entering the final season of his four-year contract. Thomas’s no-movement clause expires on July 1. If the Bruins believe Rask can be the go-to goalie and Khudobin can serve as his backup, Thomas could be moved for assets.
In the short term, Khudobin will be either a backup goalie in the playoffs or a practice netminder. Khudobin’s 44-save sparkler showed he’s up to being the former.
“Playoffs is different hockey,’’ Khudobin said. “At the same time, I got a little shots. I got a little experience. I got a little feeling of the NHL. If they need me, I’ll be ready to go.’’
Ottawa needs just one more point to lock down seventh place in the Eastern Conference and set up the Bruins-Senators matchup. Ottawa plays at New Jersey Saturday.
The Bruins had one more chance to send one final regular-season message to the Senators. But with no guarantees of a Boston-Ottawa first-round showdown, rest for the lead dogs was the No. 1 priority. Playing well without their top guns was No. 2. They accomplished both objectives.
“Regardless of whether we’ve got second place locked up or not, we still want to play the right way and do the right things,’’ Lucic said. “We felt like we did some pretty good things today. Obviously, Khudobin stepped up and played huge here tonight. All in all, our game’s coming to where we want it to be at this time of the year.’’Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.