During a season when games are coming fast and furious and No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop is sidelined until late March or early April with a knee injury, goaltending decisions are going to be crucially important for the Dallas Stars.
So far, Anton Khudobin is making them easy.
After three games, the 34-year-old netminder is leading the NHL in goals against average at 0.99 and ranks second in save percentage at .958. That hot start has made it easy for the Stars coaches to ride Khudobin, who is expected to get his fourth consecutive start Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings.
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While Bowness said he knows that rookie Jake Oettinger will play a big role this season, he also knows that Khudobin can handle the load right now and knows how to win games.
"We're not surprised with what we're seeing, because we've seen it the whole time he's been with the organization," Bowness said of the fact Khudobin has been great as a backup and as the No. 1 goalie when Bishop was hurt during the playoffs.
"People who don't watch our team play a lot might say 'Who's Khudobin?' But, to us, that's what we expect from him. We're not surprised."
Video: DET@DAL: Khudobin stuffs Rasmussen twice down low
Khudobin has been a backup for most of his career, so carrying the load is a bit new. However, he said playing in 25 of 27 playoff games helped get him ready for this season. He currently is not on the ice on off days, and instead sharpens his game with morning skates.
"We played like this in Edmonton, in bubble," Khudobin said of his routine. "We played every other day, so I like to get sweat and feel the puck in the morning before the game. And when you're playing every other day, next day (after game), you take a rest, do something in the gym. But (before game), I like to get the feel of the ice, like to get the feel of the skates, equipment, puck … and then just play."
Both Khudobin and Oettinger give a great deal of credit to goalie coach Jeff Reese, and even Bowness said Reese is a driving force in how the team deploys its netminders.
"Reeser and I talk every day and put a plan in place," Bowness said. "I have 100 percent confidence in Jeff's opinion. There is a plan in place."
Oettinger, 22, cleaned up in a couple of playoff games, but has never started an NHL game, so this will be interesting. The Stars have a back-to-back Saturday and Sunday at Carolina, and Oettinger will probably play one of those games. But Bowness wasn't ready to unveil his plan.
"We've got to make sure Doby is rested and playing the right games, and we've got to make sure Jake is playing," Bowness said. "This condensed schedule, everyone is going to face injuries, everyone is going to play tired, everyone is going to face times where the schedule hurts them. Those things are all in play for the team, but the decisions for the goaltenders are in place right now. But everything is written in pencil, you just go with the flow."
Oettinger said earlier he's looking forward to his first start.
Video: Jake Oettinger makes an incredible paddle save
"That's been in the back of my head ever since I got back from the bubble," Oettinger said during training camp. "Obviously, all the work that I put in the last few months, especially the last couple weeks in Dallas, it's all going to lead up to that. I've been dreaming of that day since I first put on pads and I think it's something I'm really looking forward to."
Oettinger served as a backup in the playoff bubble and has been a big part of practices for months, so he knows his teammates. He said that's been helpful in keeping him calm about his first start.
"I just feel like I'm a part of the team and I belong out there," Oettinger said. "To have a good relationship with all the guys is obviously really important for a comfort level. All the work that I put in in the bubble has just made me so much more confident and given me the belief that I belong out here and I can play really well with these guys."
It's a great situation for a team to be in. After all, Khudobin had hand surgery in the off-season, suffered from COVID-19 during the off-season, and also had immigration issues that gave him a late start on training camp. So for the Stars to be where they are is fortuitous indeed.
"I feel really good," Khudobin said of the hand surgery. "I can handle the puck much better, I can hold the stick much better. I can place my stick and blade in any position I want. Right now, it's much better."
The numbers seem to back that up.
Stars vs. Red Wings
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. CT
TV: FOX Sports Southwest
Radio: The Ticket 96.7-FM, 1310-AM
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.