Anton Khudobin’s play for the Dallas Stars this postseason is evoking memories of a Stanley Cup-winning goalie.
“He reminds me of a guy named Tim Thomas a little bit,” Tyler Seguin said.
The Stars forward would know. He was Thomas’ teammate when the Boston Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and has watched Khudobin help Dallas reach the Stanley Cup Final this season.
The Stars will play the Tampa Bay Lightning, who advanced with a 2-1 overtime win against the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday. Game 1 is at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the Cup Final, on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Khudobin had a .950 save percentage in five games when the Stars eliminated the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final. He’s 12-6-0 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 19 postseason games (18 starts). Khudobin never had started a Stanley Cup Playoff game prior to this season.
Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa, who has worked with Khudobin and Thomas, said the similarities between the two are everywhere.
“On the ice, in terms of their willingness to keep the puck out of the net by whatever means, the comparison is almost laughable,” Essensa said. “They have very similar attributes. They’re both under 6-foot (each is 5-11), which is obviously a rarity these days. They both have a tremendous amount of compete, and when they do compete, it’s not always in the most technical way. They’ll drift into a world where they’re just trying to stop pucks.”
The similarities between Khudobin and Thomas are greater than their physical resemblance.
Thomas was 37 years old at the start of the 2011 playoffs and was in his fifth season as Boston’s No. 1 goalie. Khudobin was 24 years old and No. 3 on the Bruins’ goalie depth chart after being acquired in a trade from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 28, 2011, and sent to Providence of the American Hockey League.
Thomas, playing a style dubbed the “battlefly” in a nod to the more technical butterfly, was 16-9 with a 1.98 GAA, a .940 save percentage and four shutouts in 25 games in the 2011 playoffs. He became the oldest player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, voted as postseason MVP. Two of his four shutouts came against the Vancouver Canucks in the Cup Final.
Marty Turco, also 5-11, was an NHL goalie for 11 seasons (2000-12), including 2011-12 with Khudobin and Thomas in Boston. Turco retired in 2013 and works for the Stars as special assistant to the president and president of the Dallas Stars Foundation.
“The guy is a battler; he’s bringing back the shorter goalies,” Turco said of Khudobin on the NHL @TheRink podcast. “He’s got some quick feet, he’s pretty stocky, he’s super strong and obviously really flexible. We’ve seen multiple splits and springing out of them like he’s some gymnast out there on the ice, but he battles.”
Khudobin and Thomas also each had an extensive wait for his first chance to establish himself in the NHL.
Thomas was 32 when he became a full-time player in the League with the Bruins in 2006-07, 12 years after he was selected by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round (No. 217) of the 1994 NHL Draft. In between, he played for 10 teams in six leagues in four countries, including three different stints in Europe. He was 34 when he earned his first start in the NHL playoffs, the same age Khudobin is now.
Thomas finished his NHL career in 2014, playing his final eight games in the League with the Stars. He had a .920 save percentage in 426 regular-season games and won the Vezina Trophy twice voted as the best goalie in the NHL (2009, 2011).
Khudobin has played for 13 teams in five leagues in three countries since the Wild picked him in the seventh round (No. 206) of the 2004 NHL Draft. He has a .919 save percentage in 218 NHL games during 11 seasons, including an NHL-best .930 save percentage this season (minimum 20 games). He began the postseason as the backup to Ben Bishop but took over the No. 1 spot with Bishop unfit to play.
“[Khudobin] doesn’t fit everybody’s goalie eye, nor did Timmy,” Essensa said. “For whatever reason, and I think it’s true nowadays, there’s not many teams around the League looking to plug in a goalie who is 5-foot-11 into their No. 1 starting goalie position.”
Essensa, who played 12 NHL seasons and has been Bruins goaltending coach for the past 17, believes the great hands and skating of each goalie is the foundation to beat passes and establish early position outside of the crease to counter a lack of height.
“The ones with longevity can beat passes and they can do it staying over their feet, and that’s where Timmy and [Khudobin] were really good,” Essensa said. “There was a method to their madness. Their edge work is terrific. Comparing the two, Timmy’s hands were better, some of the best I’ve seen. [Khudobin] is just quicker from Point A to Point B, and I think he learned a lot from Tim in their short time together in Boston in terms of living outside the technical box.”
It’s easy to compare Khudobin and Thomas in stature, style of play and story behind their path to NHL success. Essensa is hoping for one more: a Stanley Cup championship.
“To finally get an opportunity and to step up and take it, I’d love to see [Khudobin] pull it off,” he said.