MARK HUMPHREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS
NASHVILLE — Anton Khudobin, the NHL’s only undefeated goalie to have played at least 10 games this season, was back in the cage Monday night when the Bruins faced the Predators at Bridgestone Arena.
Khudobin, 31, sat out the last three games while Tuukka Rask regained his form in starts against Edmonton (L), Tampa (W), and Philadelphia (W), the Finnish stopper registering a 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in those starts.
The question was, could a rested “Doby” sustain what had been a stellar start to 2017-18? He was 7-0-2 in 10 games.
“Just give us a chance to win — hopefully he is still in form,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, musing before the game over what he hoped to see from Khudobin, who hadn’t played since the Nov. 24 win vs. the Penguins. “That’s the risk you take by not starting him. He’s sat for a little while, but as a guy who’s used to that, we hope that he’ll find his game quickly and we are good in front of him.”
But Khudobin could not continue the form that led to his hot start, as he surrendered four goals on 14 shots and was lifted early in the second period of the Bruins’ 5-3 loss to the Predators.
The Bruins came in having won six of their last seven, and their play in front of their goalie — be it Khudobin or Rask — had been key to the dramatic turnaround. Their defensive play in front of Rask, in particular, over the first six weeks of the season was spotty. But the overall adherence to defending by both forwards and blue liners had been much improved following a disappointing loss in Anaheim Nov. 15, when a peeved Cassidy sternly stated it was time to see better defense, especially behind the blue line and in net.
“Stretches of the game, we’re getting our game back quicker,” said Cassidy, noting his club’s ability to avoid protracted defensive lapses. “We are not losing it for [long]. I think only the first period in San Jose [Nov. 18] and late in the New Jersey game [Nov. 22] were the longest stretches. I think we are able to get our game back sooner, so we don’t lose a lot of energy trying to find it.”
Khudobin, whose career record was 51-45-9 prior to this season, has never had such a successful streak. He was 7-6-1 last season, finishing strongly after a spotty and sometimes-injured stretch actually led the Bruins to place him on waivers at midseason. His career high for wins came with Carolina in 2013-14, when he was 19-14-1.
Khudobin returned to Boston as a free agent in the summer of 2016, a second run in Black and Gold after initially being dealt to the Hub by Minnesota during general manager Peter Chiarelli’s regime. Upon signing up for his Boston redux, he knew his role would be as Rask’s second, but he continues to make clear that his aim is someday to be a No. 1.
“In the AHL, I’ve been a No. 1 goalie pretty much all the time,” said the Kazakhstan-born stopper. “When I got to the NHL, I knew I had to go through the No. 2 job. Right now, it’s pretty much the same.
“What’s the difference, or what do I change in preparation? I don’t change anything. I do everything I’ve been doing for years, whether I play more or less.
“It’s just harder when you are not playing as much, to go in there and be ready 100 percent. I mean, you are ready 100 percent — but it’s harder to go in there and play when you don’t feel the game.”
Jake DeBrusk sat out his third straight game, but Cassidy said he could be back in the lineup when the Coyotes visit the Garden Thursday.
The rookie left winger had been playing well of late, until his head was banged into the glass by the 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound Darnell Nurse in a Nov. 26 loss to the Oilers.
“It’s only been two games, so I don’t feel I’m too out of the loop,” said DeBrusk, “but it [stinks] watching.”
With DeBrusk still hors de combat, Cassidy rolled out the same lineup he used for the 3-0 win Saturday in Philadelphia, featuring Ryan Spooner as David Krejci’s left winger.
Spooner, a natural center, looks as though he is being cast into more regular work on the wing.
“It’s what we want from him on a regular basis,” said Cassidy, referring to Spooner’s aggressiveness off the wing in Philadelphia, where he scored his first goal of the season. “Attack the net, use his speed to score goals. It was a great play by him.
“If he’s going to be on the wing, he is going to be in those situations more, as opposed to being in the middle of the ice. Instead of looking to dish, he’s going to be on the outside, looking to attack.”
More of the same from Spooner will leave him working from the lane, with the pivot roles held by Patrice Bergeron, Riley Nash, Sean Kuraly, and Krejci.
“We’ve really liked what Nash and Kuraly have done to solidify the bottom of the lineup,” said Cassidy. “They give us a heavier-looking lineup. So that’s where [Spooner] fits right now.”
Once DeBrusk gets back, it could mean shipping a body back to AHL Providence. Competition for roster spots is part of the lifeblood of a team’s organizational depth chart.
“The players are aware of what’s going on,” noted Cassidy. “We’ve tried to create a healthy competition throughout the lineup. We’ve seen it at times up front, where we’ve used younger guys over more established guys. You are starting to see it on the back end with [Matt Grzelcyk] staying in there. Saw it in net.
“So I think it’s good if it makes your team better. It’s not personal; it’s the business side of it.”
David Backes, in the lineup for a third time after returning from colon surgery, remains about 10 pounds below last season’s playing weight. He has not been using extra protection over his abdominal area, despite surgeons removing some 10 inches of his colon following complications related to diverticulitis.
“The scar tissue is my extra protection,” said Backes.
He was still looking for his first point since his return.
“My excuses are out the window,” said a smiling Backes before notching his 500th career point on an assist on Zdeno Chara’s goal in the third period. “It’s time to get back, and it’s been great to be back. The results on the ice have been great, too. The guys are smiling, and morale’s high.”
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