LOS ANGELES – After seeing action in just 14 games prior to the Olympic break, Peter Budaj has been busy since returning from Sochi.
If Budaj gets tapped to start between the pipes for a fifth-straight game on Wednesday in Anaheim, it will mark the 31-year-old netminder’s longest starting streak since signing in Montreal in 2011. With Carey Price still on the mend after aggravating a lower-body injury during the Olympics, Budaj has slid effortlessly into a starting role for Montreal, helping the team earn five of a possible eight points since the break.
“He’s been huge for us. He gives us a chance to win every night,” confirmed Habs captain Brian Gionta following Budaj’s 20-save effort against the Kings. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he does for this team. When he steps in there, he gives us a chance to win. You have to give him a lot of credit for the way he handles himself and keeps himself ready for games. He was over there in Sochi and getting back and having to go in all of the games here isn’t easy, but he’s playing well for us.”
An unsung hero for the Habs over the past two seasons, Budaj has quietly compiled a 16-6-5 record in 31 games played since the lockout ended last January. While he’s dutifully spent the majority of his time in Montreal watching his padded partner take on the lion’s share of the workload between the pipes, Budaj has continued preparing himself to be at his best whenever Price needs a night off.
“He’s doing what we’ve come to expect from him,” explained Brendan Gallagher, who is tied with Tomas Plekanec for the team lead with a plus-9 differential in his sophomore campaign. “We have confidence when we play in front of him. We’ve always said he works hard in practice – he’s probably the hardest-working guy on the team. He’s always out there putting in extra time and it’s good to see him get rewarded for it now.”
Practice has made almost-perfect for Budaj, who has helped the Habs maintain their spot near the top of the Eastern Conference standings despite being without their starter since the return from the Olympic break.
“Peter was good again tonight. He kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win,” described Michel Therrien. “We were one shot away from tying the game. I think our effort was there tonight and we competed hard. One thing we ask our players to do is compete hard and I have nothing negative to say about the effort our guys put in.”
With 18 games under his belt already this season, Budaj has already started more games in 2013-14 than in any other season with the Canadiens, but playing behind a three-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist means his starting streak will likely come to an end as soon as Price is healthy enough to get the green light from team doctors. Happily holding down the fort under that happens, Budaj isn’t worried about when he’ll have to hand the crease back to Price for the home stretch.
“I’m not really thinking about it. The more you think about the future, the more the present slips away from you,” stressed the Banska Bystrica, Slovakia native. “I’m just taking things one game at a time. I know it’s a cliché but we have to look at the next task ahead of us and we have to see what we did right and what we did wrong today and fix the mistakes to get ready for next game. I try to prepare myself physically and mentally for when I get a chance to play and so far I feel great. My energy levels are really good and hopefully it stays that way.”
With back-to-back games on tap against the Ducks and Coyotes on Wednesday and Thursday night, respectively, there will be no shortage of opportunities for Budaj to continue proving how important it is for a team to have two solid netminders on their roster.
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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