LOS ANGELES — Veteran goaltender Peter Budaj, who is with the Los Angeles Kings on emergency recall, was thrust into the starting role on Feb. 12 against the New York Rangers. In his first NHL game since a playoff appearance with Montreal Canadiens on May 19, 2014, Budaj backstopped the Kings to a 5-4 overtime win.
For the 33-year-old, 6-foot-1, 192-pound native of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, it was his first NHL victory since April 4, 2014 (a 7-4 win by the Montreal Canadiens over the Ottawa Senators).
His last NHL regular game prior to Friday night’s contest against the Rangers was on April 9, 2014, a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Indeed, Budaj has made it back to the NHL, at least until Jonathan Quick returns to the Kings lineup (lower-body injury).
“It was very nice to come back,” he told the media in New York. “I wasn’t stressed out or anything. It was kind of like excitement. It was very exciting, Friday night, Madison Square Garden, LA Kings vs. Rangers, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
“I’m glad I was able to get this chance and I am very happy,” he added. “Especially playing in Madison Square Garden. It’s just amazing against a very good team. We had a solid game, our guys worked really hard. We never quit. The Rangers are very good, especially at home. They made some nice plays and when you let in four goals it doesn’t look that great, but credit to the guys. They never quit in front of me. They did everything they could. After they scored with four minutes left in the game, we kept battling and got the tying goal, and then, the winning goal. It’s great credit to the team that we stuck together through adversity and it was a great team win.”
As Budaj indicated, allowing four goals in a game doesn’t look good for any goaltender. But he couldn’t be blamed for any of the goals allowed. He played a solid game, and did not appear to have any difficulty adjusting to the NHL after playing all season with the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ AHL affiliate.
“I felt good,” he said. “I think even though the game is a little different here as opposed to the minors—no offense to the guys in the minors—I think the guys in the minors still have a great shot and as good of shots as the guys here, but the plays happen a little bit quicker and a little bit more tape-to-tape. It’s a little adjustment that I will keep working on, and we will see what happens.”
“It was a little bit of an adjustment, but I was able to see the puck in OT and make the saves, so I was happy I could make the saves,” he added. As I said before, the guys battled so hard for me and it’s a credit to them. We were down with four minutes left in Madison Square Garden and to come back, it’s a huge team win for us.”
As reported earlier, Budaj has been playing in the AHL this season. He was initially relegated to the minors after the Canadiens traded him to the Winnipeg Jets, who assigned him to their AHL affiliate. But he played so badly that the Jets cut him loose after the 2014-15 season, and at that point, it looked like he might be finished as an NHL netminder.
In 19 appearances last season, Budaj earned an 0-9-6 record with a 3.55 GAA and a .888 save percentage with the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps (now the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate)—all very poor numbers.
“He had a rough season last year,” said Dusty Imoo, who worked in the Jets organization before joining the Kings this season to handle their goaltender development. “It was a pivotal time in his career. He had those moments where he questioned himself, ‘am I on the downswing?’”
At that point, Budaj, who got his start in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, had a major mindset change.
“It was tough,” he said. “I got ahead of myself, mentally. I was always trying to look at what the other guys were doing, and not looking at what I was doing, at what my task was. I didn’t win last year, which was frustrating, because I tried to work hard.”
“Last year, it was a shock to me to get sent down to the minors,” he added. “The year before, [the Canadiens] went to the Conference Finals, and I had a pretty good year. But things change, and I don’t think I was ready for it. I put too much pressure on myself to get back [to the NHL] as soon as I could, which never really helps, because you put more pressure on yourself. You want to be back, but when you put the [skates] on, you’ve got to focus on the next shot, and that’s what I didn’t do. I was focusing on everything else.
“It was extremely difficult, because even with all the work I did after practice, I didn’t get the results. It was frustrating, at the time. It was hard, but my parents taught me to never quit, no matter what you do, no matter what’s going on, no matter what mountain you have to climb. You just have to keep going.”
Soul searching over the summer turned Budaj’s mental game around.
“I was really glad that I was able to find peace of mind [last summer] and come into [the Kings training] camp without a contract,” he said. “I worked hard over the summer to prepare myself as best I could, physically. Once I got there, I just tried to play and enjoy the moment, no matter what happened. Just play the game and have fun. God blessed me with being able to play and earn a contract.”
Coming into the Kings training camp this season without a contract was a blessing in disguise.
“I remember leaving Peter last year, going home for the summer, and he was resetting—starting fresh,” said Imoo. “Not having a contract—being back to where he was back in the day—was like when he was just starting out. He had all this experience, but he couldn’t [think], I should be here, or I should be that. He just had to find an open slot, and I think that approach helped him, heading into Los Angeles. I think that having to earn a contract with the Kings brought the best out of him.”
“It was definitely motivation,” added Imoo. “Not having a contract was like starting out, as a young player, all over again, having to make an impression on the coaches and scouts. Sometimes that brings out the best in a player, and that was certainly the case with Peter.”
Even though, like any goaltender, Budaj would prefer to be in the NHL, given all he’s been through since last season, playing in the AHL this season was a fresh start, a second chance, and he relished the chance. In fact, he has been the AHL’s top goaltender all season, leading the league in games played, goals-against average (GAA), minutes played, save percentage, shutouts and wins. In all, Budaj has earned a 26-9-3 record with a 1.58 GAA, a .935 save percentage, and eight shutouts in 38 games for the Reign.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said, prior to his recall. “I don’t know what’s going to happen two days from now. I don’t know what’s going to happen up in the NHL. But I don’t have to worry about that. I just have to come to work every day here, work hard, have fun with the boys, and enjoy this moment. It’s also a privilege to be here. I didn’t have to be here, so I have to take it as a privilege, and I do. It’s a blessing to be here, on a great team in a great organization.
“I have to stay focused on every game, every shot,” he added. “Don’t get ahead of yourself because when that happens, your focus is going to be directed away from where it’s supposed to be. [A goalie] is supposed to be focused on the next shot. That’s it.
“That was the big adjustment I had to make over the summer. My mental game is in a better state now. This year, I’m trying to keep my mind on the game, and on the moment I’m in.”