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Khudobin shows goaltending could again be Stars' key strength

With goals hard to come by this preseason, the most important position for Dallas may lie between the pipes

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

DALLAS -- Goaltending, it turns out, is pretty important in hockey.

Just a little sarcasm there to get you smiling, but it sure seems every discussion about Stars hockey right now has to start and end with goaltending. While Thursday's 2-1 loss to Minnesota at American Airlines Center was an improvement on previous preseason games, with Dallas earning a 30-23 advantage in shots on goal -- the first time that has happened in exhibition play this year -- they still aren't scoring much at all.

Radek Faksa's second period deflection stands up as the only tally for the Stars in this contest, and now Dallas has seven total goals in six preseason games. That's pretty scary.

 

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But this team is 3-3-0 right now because it doesn't allow many goals either.

Preseason is mostly meaningless. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have played just two games apiece and only one together, and we've really not seen a glimpse of the lines that might roll out there on Oct. 3 when the Boston Bruins come to AAC for the season opener. So, there are grains of salt all over these evaluations right now.

Yes, you can look at the improvement of players like Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz, and say they are ready to take a bigger bite out of this team. Yes, you can see the steady hands of Jamie Oleksiak and Andrej Sekera, and say the defensive depth should be improved from last season. Yes, you can pretty much figure that scoring a power play goal against this team is going to be tough all season (they have allowed just one all preseason).

Video: Khudobin discusses process of preseason preparation

But whether or not Joe Pavelski can fit in and come anywhere close to the 38 goals he got last year? Yeah, that's not so clear right now. Whether Corey Perry can jump in and squeeze another productive season out of his All-Star career? The Magic 8-Ball says "Ask again Later." And whether or not Denis Gurianov or Jason Robertson (or any of the other candidates) can become this year's Hintz or Dickinson? Well, let's just say there is hope and optimism for each and every one of the aspiring scorers.

That creates trepidation with just one preseason game to go. That makes you worry and wonder whether they will be ready for the two Stanley Cup finalists in the first two games, or for seven of the first 10 on the road, or for trips to Washington and Pittsburgh. You wonder if this highly-anticipated Magical Mystery Tour will be in a drainage ditch before we even see Halloween.

But if you're struggling with all of this, I do have one kernel of Zen peace I can offer, and that's this ... goaltending, it turns out, is pretty important in hockey.

The Stars right now seem to have that part of the game figured out. They were second in goals against last season, Ben Bishop was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, and Anton Khudobin was one of the best back-up goalies in the league. That's pretty comforting.

Khudobin stopped 21 of 23 shots on Thursday in the loss, and looked pretty good doing it. He had been held out of a few practices because of a nagging injury, but his return was solid and confidence-building.

"He's an excellent goaltender," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said. "He was really good tonight making big saves. He kept us in it when they got some opportunities to stretch the lead to two goals."

Video: Greenway, Zucker lead Wild past Stars

Khudobin said after the game that the coaches wanted him to be 100 percent before he returned from his training camp injury, and added that helped him be on top of his game. He said he felt good to be back as a starter for the first time since the regular season.

Khudobin said he likes to use practice to get himself sharp, and he clearly was sharp against the Wild.

"I think I said last year that if I'm not playing for long, I take a practice as a game," he said.

Montgomery in the morning said Khudobin was one of the big reasons the Stars made the playoffs last season. He played in 41 games, an astounding number for a back-up, and finished 15th overall in GAA (2.57) and eighth in save percentage (.923). With Bishop finishing second in GAA (1.98) and first in save percentage (.934), that makes for a pretty potent duo.

It also means the Stars are in every game. They were Thursday. They started slow, they got their legs and they gained a lot of confidence. Alexander Radulov started to play better, same with Tyler Seguin. Radek Faksa scored a goal, played 16:17, and won nine of 14 faceoffs. You can sense improvement.

But Minnesota made the right plays at the right time and received big goals from Jordan Greenway on a bang-bang play at the net and from Jason Zucker off the rebound on a two-on-one. That's all they needed because on the other end of the ice, Devan Dubnyk was stopping 29 of 30 Stars shots.

Video: Monty sees progress for Stars in Preseason

The big backstop, who went 35-16-7 two years ago, looks to be on top of his game as well, and he pretty much stole the win on Thursday.

It seems that goaltending is pretty important for the Wild, as well.

Bottom line, teams that have it have some wiggle room. If they're not perfect, they can still pick up points in the standings. If an offensive player is struggling, he typically has a little more time to find his touch. This isn't going to be easy for the Stars. They have a lot of areas where they need improvement, they have players at different stages of their career who need to get on the same page.

And if the goalies are keeping every score low, then the ability to not panic is greatly enhanced.

Ben Bishop gets the full game Saturday in the final preseason game, and the belief is he will be just fine. Anton Khudobin already showed that he's ready for the regular season, and that is a pretty sizeable relief for the coaching staff.

Because if you're going to excel in one area in the NHL, goaltending is a pretty good place to start.

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.

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