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‘More than I can imagine’ – Peter Budaj on his unlikely season with Kings

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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

The Buzzer: Kempe, Schwartz record hat tricks; Leafs honor Gord Downie

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Players of the night: Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues / Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

The Blues forward tallied his third career hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz scored the game’s first two goals before completing his hat trick with a late empty-net goal to stave off a Chicago comeback.

Wednesday’s feat for Schwartz came three years to the day of his first career three-goal game.

Kempe, meanwhile, tallied his first NHL hat trick and finished with four points during LA’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Two of his three goals were assisted by Mike Cammalleri, who also finished the night with four points.

Highlight of the night:

Eddie Olczyk returned to the NBC broadcast booth as he continues his battle against colon cancer. Olczyk, along with Doc Emrick, called the Blues-Blackhawks game from Scottrade Center Wednesday night.

MISC:

Auston Matthews recorded the 20th multi-point game of his career. He now has six goals and 10 points on the season.

Patrick Marleau became the 18th NHL player to reach the 1,500-game mark.

Jake Allen kept his shutout bid alive with this great stick save on Patrick Kane late:

-The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1. They’ve allowed only 10 goals against through six games.

Jeff Carter left the game in the first period and did not return after tangling with Jeff Petry. Afterward, Kings head coach John Stevens said the forward will miss some time.

-Finally, The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from cancer at age 53 on Wednesday. The Maple Leafs paid tribute before their game against the Red Wings.

Factoid of the night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Red Wings 3

Blues 5, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Canadiens 1

Cammalleri, Kempe power Kings over Canadiens

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Adrian Kempe recorded his first career NHL hat trick and Mike Cammalleri added two goals as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

After Paul Byron opened the scoring for Montreal midway through the first period, the Kings responded with five unanswered goals to hand the Habs their sixth straight defeat.

Cammalleri, who inked a one-year deal over the summer to return to the Kings, had a hand in four of LA’s five goals. He started the scoring for the Kings in the first period by celebrating the Dodgers’ playoff run with his own special kind of baseball swing.

Kempe, who finished with four points as well, scored his three goals over a span of 10:50 in the third period to help the Kings to their best start in franchise history (5-0-1).

LA remains the only NHL team yet to lose in regulation this season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jaden Schwartz’s hat trick leads Blues over Blackhawks

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Jaden Schwartz‘s third career hat trick helped power the St. Louis Blues over the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in a Central Division clash Wednesday night at Scottrade Center.

Schwartz’s eventful evening began with a goal 4:46 into the first period. It was nearly ended minutes later after a scary crash into the end boards following a scoring chance.

After missing some time, Schwartz returned in the second period and doubled the Blues’ lead with his fourth of a season, thanks to a great outlet pass from Allen.

As the Blues built up a 4-0 lead, the Blackhawks spoiled Allen’s shutout bid with a pair of late power play goals 80 seconds apart. The furious rally was stopped, however, and Schwartz capped off his hat trick with an empty netter to put the game out of reach.

St. Louis dominated the first two periods, outshooting the Blackhawks 26-8 as they built up their 2-0 lead. The Blackhawks’ power play failed them early in the game, missing out on five chances to capitalize with the extra man through 40 minutes.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens at Kings

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The Montreal Canadiens play their second game of a three-game west coast trip Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

It hasn’t been the best start for the Habs, who sit tied for last in the Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. They’re winless since an opening night win over the Buffalo Sabres. On the other side of things, the Kings are the only NHL team that has yet to lose in regulation. Their 4-0-1 start puts them a point behind the Vegas Golden Knights, and their game in-hand gives them the opportunity to leap into first place in the Pacific Division with a victory.

You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (10:30 p.m. ET) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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