Anton Khudobin stood at mid-ice, blushing, a huge smile on his face. He was the number-one star of the game for the Houston Aeros. But that's not why he was blushing. He was blushing because, in unison, 3,189 fans inside of Toyota Center were singing "Happy Birthday" to the now 23-year-old native of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan.
"This is my best happy birthday of my life," Khudobin said afterwards. "It is May 7, and I have never played hockey this late in the year. We played well, we got the 2-0 win and we now lead the series. I am very happy about that."
And Khudobin was right to be happy. Thought to be the team's weakest link coming into the playoffs, Khudobin had just stopped 27 Milwaukee shots to lead the Aeros to the 2-0 Game Four victory that puts the Aeros just one game shy of advancing to the AHL's Western Conference Finals.
The Aeros grabbed the early 1-0 goal at 16:56 of the first period when Benoit Pouliot, in perfect position in front of the net, got a pass from Marco Rosa who came up from behind the net to draw Milwaukee goalie Drew MacIntyre out of position, and put the puck in the net.
"It started at the point, actually," Pouliot said of the shot. "[Clayton] Stoner went to make an out pass. I didn't really want to touch it, but Stoner made a great job to go back and get it. He threw it in the corner, and I tried to crash the net as much as possible because that's what coach wants. And that's what I did, and Rosa just made a perfect pass to me in the open net."
And that was it for the scoring until there were two seconds remaining in the game when Krys Kolanos got the puck into the empty net to make the final score 2-0. But if not for the play of Khudobin in the net, the Aeros would likely have not won this game, and likely would be trailing Milwaukee in this series instead of being one game away from advancing.
"That's our playoffs right there. Anton," Pouliot said. "He's never really had an off game."
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"The good news is that Anton's done two things for me as a goalie," head coach Kevin Constantine said. "Number one is he's responded to losses with good outings. I think that's a sign of a good goalie. And he's gotten better over the course of the last month where he's played, so he's making adjustments to play at this level."
So now the Aeros have the 3-1 series lead over Milwaukee, with three chances to get one more win. Game Five is Saturday night at 7:35 from Toyota Center. The Aeros have been outplayed on offense and in many ways have been lucky to get three wins. Lucky in terms of scoring goals. But the play of Anton Khudobin has not been lucky. It's been good. And last night, Anton Khudobin was more than good.
"We didn't want to wish him "Happy Birthday" before the game," Constantine said. "It was kind of like you don't say shutout in the middle of the game. But it's a pretty good birthday gift for him."
But maybe it wasn't Khudobin who got the gift for his birthday. After his play last night, stopping 27 of 27 shots, maybe Khudobin instead gave everyone a birthday gift. The gift of an Aeros victory.