At times, Khudobin has been more popular than mainstay Cam Ward among the fan base, but it’s not unlike a backup quarterback at times — always the most popular option when the main one is struggling.
However, Khudobin — who was given a contract extension a few months ago — has been more than a backup, posting an 18-12-1 record as the starter, including Carolina’s 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars (37-28-11) on Thursday, and stopping 33 of the 34 shots.
"I think it just comes naturally. I focus just on my game, how to get results, how to get the job done, how to win the game and how to help my teammates win the game," Khudobin said. "I’m not thinking about anything else, like I need to stop big saves or it’s going to be a lot of shots in the first 10 minutes or whatever. I just focus on how I need to play and what I need to do."
"He’s been coming up with some big saves, and we’re getting the goaltending right now every night with both of them," said Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller of his goalie tandem. "It’s a little start, but we get our feet going, we had a good strong game but when we did break down, he had some key saves at the right time."
It has helped this team get over some rough moments, as well. The Hurricanes (34-32-11) have struggled to get off to good starts all season long, and getting out to early deficits has often been no fault of either goaltender. The defense has seemed to learn if it does just enough, Khudobin and/or Ward will generally do the rest.
If it doesn’t, the team loses confidence and things goes downhill in a hurry.
"When you look at the stat of if you score first in this league, you have an 80-something percent chance of winning the games. You want to have good starts, we talk about it and everything but we’ve failed a few too times too many this year," Muller said. "Now, our goaltenders are keeping us in early and we’re getting our confidence, and we seem to really play stronger obviously in the second and third.
"But a lot of that has to do with goaltending," Muller continued. "You look around the league right now, you need goaltending. It’s a common denominator to win hockey games."
John-Michael Liles tied his career high with three points. He has gone back and forth between the minors and the NHL, a frustrating journey that’s not unlike the one his team has encountered this season. Like the Hurricanes, once he found some success, Liles has been able to build on it.
"It’s just a matter of knowing what’s successful for us. When you have success and you can point your finger at hey, this is why we won that game and try and repeat it for the following game and try to get on a roll," Liles said. "For us, it’s a matter of believing in that system … we’ve been winning games and we’ve been coming out on the right end of it."
The short-term future is somewhat irrelevant here, since the playoffs remain extremely unlikely for the Hurricanes. But this team can build on something sustainable.
It starts now, though, as Khudobin said when asked if he could be this kind of goaltender every night.
"I’m not focusing that far, to be honest with you. I’m just focusing on the next day and the next game," Khudobin said. "It doesnât matter how I played in the past. You always need to focus on your present. Still, it’s always — everybody has weaknesses, so you need to work on them and just keep moving forward. It’s (wrong) if you start thinking too far ahead."