There was only one choice for Andrej Sekera, the Dallas Stars defenseman who had the ritual duty of passing on the team’s celebratory chain necklace after they made the Stanley Cup Final.
“I gotta give it to the [expletive] Russian Machine,” he said.
Anton Khudobin looked down at the talisman and grinned, soaking in a movie-like moment. He looked up and let loose a defiant growl. He was The Wolf of Wall Street in goalie pads.
“We’re not going hoooome!” he bellowed.
Dobby Days roll on in Edmonton, where Dallas will carry the Western Conference banner for the first time since North Texas fell in love with Mike Modano, Ed Belfour, and Brett Hull’s skate in Dominik Hasek’s crease in 1999 and 2000.Their man these days is Khudobin, the gregarious former Bruins backup who is shining in his first run as a playoff starter. Age 34 and 14 seasons into his pro career, he’s why the Stars were enjoying a few days off before the final round.
Unless you live in Tampa, you may be rooting for Dallas in the Stanley Cup Final. Because of Khudobin, they have a few supporters in Calgary. And that’s despite the fact he helped knock them out of the first round.
Milan Lucic, his former Bruins teammate, always finds time to crack a joke with Khudobin during a game. “He’s this high-energy, fun-loving, emotional guy that enjoys hockey,” said Lucic, reached at home in Calgary. “You can’t help but love the guy and rally around the guy.”
A solid backup
In the second of his two stints in Boston (2011-13, 2016-18), Khudobin was a solid backup to Tuukka Rask. He was also a bit of a ham. On Behind the B, NESN’s Black and Gold-tinted version of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” Khudobin play-wrestled at practice with a young Jimmy Fund visitor, and exasperatedly picked out a Christmas present for his mom, Tatiana.
“Every single year,” the Russian ranted to himself. “What do you want me to do, like right now? I have no clue,” before settling on a handbag. He victoriously pumped his fists.
In another scene, he sat on the backup’s stool for a game against Ottawa. Like a bear on a pine tree, he pushed his back against the glass behind him. The busy people around him, including Bruins equipment manager Keith Robinson, did not register any concern.
“My back is itchy. Can you do something for this?” Khudobin complained to Robinson, a mellow veteran of the sticks and skates trade. Maybe go get a broken stick, he suggested.
Khudobin, persistent: “It’s right here.”
“It’s right here.”
“Where — you want me to scratch your back?”
Khudobin surely would have returned the favor if asked. Flames coach Geoff Ward, an assistant in Boston (2007-14), watched a young netminder happily shoulder the burdens of a backup goalie, staying late after practice to help shooters and keeping the room loose.
“He’s one of the favorite guys in every room he’s in. Guys just love him,” Ward said from his offseason home near Boston. "Just a guy who loves life. How can you not cheer for a guy like that?
"He’s been such a great 1B for so many years in our league, and now to see him have the opportunity he’s having and playing so well, how can you not cheer for him? You see the stuff going on after games in the Dallas dressing room, they love him. It was the same in Boston.
“As much as we hated losing [to Dallas], we’re shaking hands after and he gives you a hug and he’s got a big smile on his face. He’s a noble competitor, an honorable man, a great person, and an awesome teammate. I’m hoping he runs it right out. It would be awesome.”
Khudobin, whose parents once gave up their home and jobs in Siberia to chase their son’s burgeoning hockey career took the slow road through the KHL, ECHL, and AHL. He was an understudy for Rask (Boston) and Cam Ward (Carolina) and a third-stringer in Anaheim. A few months into his second run with the Bruins, they demoted him to the AHL via waivers.
In the summer of 2018, the Bruins balked at his request for $2.5 million a season, which was more than double the $1.2M they paid him before. Dallas saw an opportunity to ease the workload of starter Ben Bishop, signing Khudobin for two years and $5 million. He is four wins from entering free agency with a Cup ring.
Bishop’s injuries this summer, which opened the door for Khudobin to play, further justified an important decision for the club. Management believed the longer distances Western Conference teams travel — in Dallas, no opponent is closer than a two-hour flight — was fatiguing their goalies. Also, they don’t typically score a ton.
Why Khudobin? “We thought Boston and ourselves play a similar style of game,” general manager Jim Nill said. "We did our homework, as far as his personality. He’s infectious. He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. He leads the room. He’s a battler. He never gives up.
“As far as the two years, I wish it was about a five-year deal now. Would have been nice. But good for Anton. He’s earned this right. I hope we can get him back, because he’s a big part of our team.”
Lights out against Vegas
In describing Khudobin, one of his former Bruins teammates invoked the patron saint of undersized, well-traveled, hyper-competitive netminders.
“He reminds me of a guy named Tim Thomas a little bit,” Tyler Seguin said.
As pups during the Bruins' 2011 Cup run, both current Stars watched Thomas post a .938 save percentage and capture the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Khudobin, whose save percentage in the regular season was an NHL-best .930, is operating at a .920 clip this postseason, second to Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. He was lights-out in a five-game dismissal of Vegas, stopping 153 of 161 shots (.950).
“They still talking to us, and saying, ‘OK, you gotta go, you gotta go, relax, do this and that,’” a visibly thrilled Khudobin said on the ice, moments after clinching the West. “They’re still making fun of me: ‘What are you going to do tomorrow? What are you going to do tomorrow?’ It’s kind of keeping me loose.”