RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes couldn’t have a better dilemma with goaltenders Anton Khudobin and Cam Ward.
The National Hockey League (NHL) announced on Monday that Khudobin was named the league’s First Star for the month of January.
Just a day earlier, Carolina recalled Ward from a conditioning stint with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League (AHL), as he finished his second recovery from injury this season and third since last year.
The recognition awarded to Khudobin marked just the fifth time in franchise history that a member of the team had earned the league’s player of the month honor.
He matched a Hurricanes franchise record for wins in a month in January with 10, registering a goals-against average of 2.19 and save percentage of .927 in 14 games.
The goaltender whose win total he matched was Ward’s.
Ward is and has been the Hurricanes’ franchise goalie since was drafted in the first round (25th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, and helped Carolina win its first and only Stanley Cup in 2006 while earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of that championship final.
Not surprisingly, he is the Hurricanes franchise’s all-time leader in games played by a goaltender (450), wins (220) and shutouts (21) and has earned his chance to earn and keep his starting position every year.
Unfortunately this season has not played out the way Ward envisioned it when he came in ready to go after using the entire offseason to recover from a third-degree knee sprain.
Prior to his second and recent lower-body injury of this season, Ward had posted a 6-7-5 record, a 3.15 goals-against average and an .895 save percentage in 19 games played with Carolina this season.
Not stellar numbers of what was expected of him in leading the Hurricanes into postseason contention at the beginning of the year.
However, Ward’s season has also included a period during which a groin muscle tear kept him out for approximately three weeks.
Some wondered if he had come back too soon as he’s missed almost a month now – 21 total games this season – and is just returning from his conditioning stint with the Checkers, finishing 1-1 with a .937 save percentage in two consecutive games played.
Complicating the situation in net this year was the positive development of the teams’ third goaltender, Justin Peters.
He carried the weight of the team’s duties in net while both Ward and Khudobin were recovering from injury earlier in the year.
Peters’ 7-9-4 record with a 2.50 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, which on the surface doesn’t shine brightly, was critical in helping the team earn some wins when it was doubtful that they would.
He too has put up career numbers for his resume and has been a part of piecing together the puzzle that in the end could play out like a mosaic, should the Hurricanes manage to make the playoffs without a clear number one goalie.
Yes, Ward is and has been considered the team’s number one goalie all along.
Khudobin’s journey has been a roundabout one, first starting out as seventh round pick of the Minnesota Wild in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and has seen him make a stop in Boston before arriving in Raleigh.
He now has a career NHL record of 26-9-1 with a 2.09 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 38 games with Minnesota, Boston and Carolina.
With Khudobin coming in as the NHL-experienced backup to Ward when the season began, Peters was Charlotte’s starting keeper, and was not expected to be in the backup spot anytime soon.
However, the groin injury to Ward put Khudobin in as the starter and Peters got his chance to assume the bench position in Raleigh.
The Russian netminder started with two quick wins before going down with an ankle injury, and all of a sudden, Peters was thrust under the spotlight and the microscope.
While all eyes on him, he and the Hurricanes went through a rough start to his tenure as ‘the guy’ before he settled down to put up some impressive numbers for himself and allow the team to stay in games and to earn valuable points.
Now with Khudobin on a tear and playing in a zone that no one has seen in five years, he holds a 12-4-0 record with a 2.16 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, he is ‘the guy’.
With all three goaltenders apparently healthy and ready to play, the question for the remainder of the season for head coach Kirk Muller will constantly be, “who is ‘the guy’ today?”
What a problem to have.
Picking from the current NHL Star of the month, the franchise goalie who is a Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup trophy winner, or a rising system scrapper who continually surprises you when you least expect it.