Hundreds of fans lined the concourse of TD Garden on Tuesday afternoon, there to cheer on the Bruins as they marched out to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Tuuuuk!” they bellowed as goalie Tuukka Rask strolled by.
“We want Campbell!” they chanted, summoning Gregory Campbell, the wounded hero of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“Oh my gosh, I love you Patrice!” one female fan shrieked as Patrice Bergeron flashed a smile and walked out the door.
And then Anton Khudobin, dressed in a dark suit just like his teammates, passed by the masses.
“Daddy,” one young boy asked his father, “which player is that?”
This is the norm for Khudobin, the Bruins’ backup goaltender. It’s a role he embraces because he knows the team needs him. It’s a role that requires immense concentration. It’s a role he hopes is temporary.
“In some ways it is much more difficult than being a starter,” Khudobin said. “But at the same time everyone has to go through this, and this is my time.”
The importance of backup goaltenders was illustrated in 1928 when the Rangers’ starter,Lorne Chabot, was injured in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Teams didn’t always carry backups, so Lester Patrick, New York’s 44-year-old coach, suited up.
In this year’s opening round, five teams dipped into their goalie reserve as the starters were either injured or underperforming.
However, the backup goaltender is one of the least glamorous roles in hockey. He is a player barely recognized, because he barely plays. In this lockout-shortened season, Khudobin played in 14 games, sometimes going two weeks without action.
The NHL playoffs are a battle of mental attrition. Khudobin takes on an added layer of stress. He absorbs scouting reports and video breakdowns, just like Rask. He warms up with the team, just like Rask. He gets pumped up as loud music and louder fans anxiously await the start of the game.
“You get all this energy before the game,” Khudobin said. “And then you have to figure out a way to keep this energy inside your body. You want to go on the ice, but you must sit on the bench. And you need to keep this energy, somehow, because you never know when you will get the call.”
Between periods, Khudobin talks to Rask, pointing out things he sees on the ice. The two are good friends, often dining out on the road and sitting next to each other on the team bus.
“But I talk to him [during the game] only if he asks me questions,” Khudobin said. “I don’t want to interrupt his focus.”
Khudobin maintains his own focus by chatting on the bench.
“And opening the door between shifts,” Khudobin said. “It’s harder than it looks.”
Khudobin hasn’t played since April 23. In some ways he doesn’t want to play. That means something happened to Rask, who stopped 134 of 136 shots in the Eastern Conference finals.
But Khudobin does want to showcase his skills. At 27, the native of Kazakhstan dreams of assuming a starting role one day. He is an unrestricted free agent after this season.
“It’s a fine line,” Khudobin said. “And hard on you mentally.”
Khudobin already has a Stanley Cup ring. In 2011, Rask was the understudy to Tim Thomas. And Khudobin was on the playoff roster as the team’s emergency goalie.
This time, Khudobin is one step closer.