Houston goalie Anton Khudobin
, a native of Kazakhstan, speaks very good English but delivers it in a fashion that usually leaves his teammates chuckling.
The combination of a good sense of humor plus the occasional odd word or phrase out of order is an endearing trait, one that has made the second-year pro's adjustment to the Aeros a lot easier.
"Him not really being from here, but being outgoing, it gives him that comical side. He's goofy," is the best way backup goalie Matt Climie
can put it. "He just fits in with the team atmosphere."
Khudobin's play in the AHL postseason is speaking loud and clear. But just in case any further clarification is necessary, here is the only message he needs to get across to his teammates:
Khudobin, an ECHL call-up, has been a set of cardio paddles to the collective heart of the Aeros. Houston's playoff hopes looked all but flatlined when starters Barry Brust
and Nolan Schaefer
both started the postseason injured.
Instead, Khudobin, a seventh-round pick by Minnesota in 2004, stepped in to cooly out-do NHL vet Manny Legace
as Houston beat Peoria in the first round four games to three. In the West Division Finals, he had the Aeros up 3-1 against Milwaukee before the Admirals battled back with two wins to tie the series, forcing a Game 7 on Wednesday. Khudobin's stellar play included a Game 4 shutout on May 7, his 23rd birthday. Overall, he is 7-6 with two shutouts, a 2.52 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in the playoffs.
Really, what need more be said?
"Maybe it was pressure. But I was ready," Khudobin said. "I was just thinking to myself, talking to my coaches, they said, just be yourself."
Problem was, no one was really sure whether that person was capable of playoff production. Khudobin had five wins in 22 career AHL appearances entering this postseason. He played only 10 games with Houston after a promotion from the Florida Everblades in March, and in his last four games prior to the playoffs he was 1-3 with a 3.87 goals-against average and a .844 save percentage.
"In all honesty, that put a question mark on how he would be in the playoffs," said Aeros coach Kevin Constantine
. "What coach wouldn't be nervous going into the playoffs with his top two goalies injured?"
What few could have understood about Khudobin is how quickly he can come a long way. In youth hockey, he started out as a defenseman but found himself enamored with blocking shots and generally getting in the way of the puck. Hence, a promising young netminder was born.
"You have to find what's best for you, what you like," he said. "I liked being goalie. Now, I'm goalie. So it was probably a good choice."
Khudobin may have thought so, but the Wild didn't always agree. He was stuck mostly with Texas of the ECHL last year, and despite going 20-1-4 with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage, Khudobin didn't get any action in Minnesota's preseason games this past season. Now, in the most important games of all, he's the biggest reason why the Aeros are holding hockey sticks instead of golf clubs.
"I was worried about it. In training camp, I didn't play in any exhibitions. I was like, what's going on here guys," Khudobin said. "It was a long way to get here. I was waiting for this chance for two years. I wasn't thinking about I'll be starting goalie in the playoffs. Then we started playoffs, and I said to myself, I have to be No. 1."
"The idea that you can rebound after a bad game is always a good criteria as to whether a goalie is a good goalie or not. The bottom line for me when a guy has a good rebound game is competitiveness. If you didn't have a good game, then go play harder."
-- Kevin Constantine
But even as a self-motivation ploy, that's just talk. The true measure of Khudobin's success the past month is how he cranks it back up after he fails.
In the games following Houston's first four playoff losses this postseason, the netminder is 4-0 with a 1.19 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage.
"I just want to forget about (bad games). What you have to do is see what you did wrong, stay positive. A new day is a new day," he said.
"The idea that you can rebound after a bad game is always a good criteria as to whether a goalie is a good goalie or not," Constantine said. "The bottom line for me when a guy has a good rebound game is competitiveness. If you didn't have a good game, then go play harder."
The drive is all encompassing. Khudobin moved to Russia when he was a teen and now misses his favorite dishes from that country. When he was in Miami he hunted down a Russian grocery store and bought about $300 worth of homeland goodies.
Houston has proven to be a tougher case to crack, but after scouring the Internet Khudobin located a similar grocery store nearby. One problem -- there's no refrigerator in his hotel room, so perishables are out of the question.
His servings to teammates are usually accompanied by a side dish of chirpings that somehow transcend any language barrier. Constantine calls him a prototypical goalie in terms of quirkiness, one who often has an "evil grin" on his face.
Says Khudobin: Why not?
"I don't have to be all the time mean. I have to be happy all the time," he said. "Life is good. Maybe sometimes I don't want to show how I'm feeling. Maybe I feel bad or good. Some bad days, disappointing things, I don't want to show everybody this. I stay positive all the time. That's good for me, good for the team."
What's even better for both is how much Khudobin is giving the Aeros to smile about when fun time is over and the serious action begins.
"I know I can play good. I'm not thinking. I'm just playing the game," he said. "I have to make my name to move up. It's really important for me to play right now. If I keep winning, they (Minnesota) will see it."