With only one game remaining prior to the Olympic break, one would think that Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller would have no big decisions to make in the near future. This thought couldn’t be further from the truth though, as Muller will have to decide before the end of the upcoming Olympic break whether he is going to entrust Cam Ward or Anton Khudobin as the Hurricanes starting goaltender for the rest of the season.
After watching Carolina beat the Florida Panthers 4-1 on Friday night, this shouldn’t really be much of a debate, as Khudobin was absolutely brilliant between the pipes. For the entirety of the night he stopped 34 out of 35 shots, good for a .978 save percentage, and was truly in control of the game the whole way. Whenever the Panthers got chances on net it seemed that Khudobin ensured there would be no second chance, swallowing pucks and allowing no rebounds on the way to an exceptional outing.
And while it wouldn’t be right to give Khudobin the starting nod down the stretch just based on one night, Muller can look at a long run of success when justifying this decision. Khudobin has started each of the Hurricanes last 16 games, compiling a 11-5 record along the way and allowing no more than three goals in a single game.
While some goalies would be worn down by this long stretch of consecutive games, Khudobin has not been, and in fact he has looked to relish the prospect of starting consistently for the first time at the NHL level. Moreover, the Hurricanes have seemed to enjoy playing in front of the Russian, as they look to be more explosive with the puck and less fearful of making decisions in front of their own net than at other times during the current season. The fact that the team has launched back into the race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference must be of great comfort to Muller, and is something that can not be jeopardized.
Placing Ward back in the net after a reign of consistency and excellence would be a dangerous proposition undoubtedly, and one that looks likely to backfire in the worst way possible. This is in part because Ward has simply been dreadful during the 2013-14 season–compiling a 3.14 GAA–and more so because the Hurricanes simply don’t look comfortable or motivated playing in front of him.
So while the Olympic Break could provide the perfect cover to slip Ward back into the starting fold without many noticing enough to care, this would surely be the wrong decision for the Hurricanes team as a whole. They simply enjoy playing in front of Khudobin too much, and he has been too successful in the absence of Ward to be replaced without going through a rough patch of form.