LOS ANGELES (AP) Peter Budaj is the most popular guy in the Los Angeles Kings’ dressing room this season, and it’s not just because the veteran goalie has been the unlikely savior of their season after Jonathan Quick‘s opening-night injury.
Budaj’s career revival is immensely gratifying to his teammates, who genuinely love to see a good guy getting a break.
“He seized this opportunity and took control of it,” Kings forward Dustin Brown said. “You hate to see a guy like (Quick) get hurt, but (Budaj) has done a great job when he got the chance. … Everybody just feels happy for him. It’s pretty great.”
Budaj has been one of the NHL’s top goalies this season for the Kings, who open a four-game road trip in Philadelphia on Saturday. Los Angeles (26-21-4) is still in playoff contention despite the season-long absence of Quick, the two-time Stanley Cup winner who has been the Kings’ workhorse in net since 2009.
Budaj is 24-14-3 while appearing in 44 of the Kings’ 51 games. He ranks among the NHL leaders with his 2.01 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and six shutouts, which are tied with All-Star Braden Holtby for the most in the league.
Not bad for a 34-year-old Slovak goalie who spent the past two seasons in the AHL and fully expected to be back in the minors again this year while his hockey career wound down. Budaj is nicknamed “Ned Flanders” for his similarities to the Simpsons character with the faith-based, permanently optimistic outlook on life.
“Just playing up here this year, it’s more than I could imagine,” Budaj said after blanking Colorado 5-0 earlier this week for his NHL-leading sixth shutout of the season. “I’m just very thankful to be here. The team is playing great in front of me. We have a great group of guys who work tremendously hard to keep going.”
Budaj was a backup more often than a starter during his nine seasons with Colorado and Montreal. Three years later in Los Angeles, he already has his first 20-victory NHL season since 2008-09 with the Avalanche.
“It was such a long shot for me, I don’t even know if you could call it a long shot,” Budaj told NBC Sports after beating the Avalanche. “I think that what’s happening here right now, I can’t even put it into words. I’m so excited to play here right now, to play the way I’m playing.”
After three years in Montreal as Carey Price‘s backup, Budaj spent the 2014-15 season with the Winnipeg Jets’ woeful AHL team in St. John’s, and he couldn’t find an NHL contract the following summer.
Budaj joined the Kings on a pro tryout contract largely because they needed an extra veteran goalie for training camp. He still played well enough to earn another season in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ affiliate just 40 miles east of Staples Center.
Ontario only had a spot open after the departures of two goaltending prospects, but Budaj was grateful to fill in – and he won 42 AHL games.
He was resigned to the prospect of a third straight season in the minors before Quick, who had played a whopping 140 games in the previous two seasons, badly injured his groin during the first period of LA’s season opener.
Quick’s backup was expected to be Jeff Zatkoff, who had only 35 games of NHL experience when the Kings signed him from Pittsburgh. When Zatkoff then injured his own groin during a morning skate days later, the Kings turned to Budaj out of necessity.
Budaj isn’t doing it all himself: The Kings’ commitment to team defense is built into every part of coach Darryl Sutter’s approach. Selke Trophy winner Anze Kopitar and All-Star defenseman Drew Doughty both sacrifice potential offensive numbers to focus on their two-way games.
After nearly four months on the shelf, Quick is making progress toward a return. He participated in the Kings’ practice in El Segundo on Thursday, and he faced shots again in Pennsylvania on Friday.
There’s no doubt Quick will return to the crease when healthy, given his 10-year, $58 million contract through 2023. But Budaj has rescued a career that might have been permanently stalled, and his teammates are cheering him on.
“He makes the same kind of big saves that Quickie has made around here for years,” Brown said. “We’re used to it, but it’s still amazing to see him step right in.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gregbeacham