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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

DeBoer praises ‘courageous’ Thornton for playing with torn ACL, MCL (Updated)

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In a fairly stunning admission on Monday, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters that Joe Thornton played in four of San Jose’s six playoff games versus Edmonton with a significant knee injury.

Thornton, who was hurt against Vancouver late in the regular season, suffered tears to both his left MCL and ACL.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said, per the club’s Twitter account. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton, 37, missed the first two games of the series to rest his knee, before suiting up for the final four. He averaged 18:50 TOI per night and finished with a pair of assists, numbers that are pretty remarkable given the severity of his ailment.

Jumbo wasn’t the only unhealthy Shark during the first-round playoff ouster. Logan Couture‘s face/mouth injury was well-documented and, today, DeBoer also revealed that Tomas Hertl was playing with a broken foot, and Patrick Marleau with a broken thumb.

Looking ahead, Thornton’s knee injury might cloud what’s an already murky future. He’s a pending UFA, and there have been no clear signals from the organization on how they’ll address his potential return. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp was looking for a three-year deal.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Sharks GM Doug Wilson has time on his side. It’s understood the club probably wouldn’t act on an extension for Thornton until after the June expansion draft, which could give the Sharks enough time to better gauge his health.

Update:

Per NBC Sports California, Wilson confirmed Thornton is undergoing surgery today to repair the ligaments.

 

 

Online bookmaker: Caps are Stanley Cup favorites

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The Washington Capitals got a bit of a scare in the first round, but they’ll go into the second round as the Stanley Cup favorites.

Per online bookmaker Bovada, here is the full list of Stanley Cup odds for the eight remaining teams:

Washington Capitals   7/2
Pittsburgh Penguins    17/4
Anaheim Ducks             11/2
Edmonton Oilers          11/2
St. Louis Blues              13/2
Nashville Predators     7/1
New York Rangers       8/1
Ottawa Senators           10/1

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the postseason as 4/1 Cup favorites at Bovada. Of course, the ‘Hawks were then swept by the Preds, who’ve gone from 25/1 long shots to 7/1 heading into their series with the Blues.

The Caps’ odds actually dropped to 13/2 after they fell behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1. But three straight wins, two in overtime, clinched them a spot against the Penguins in the second round.

The Ottawa Senators are the long shots of the bunch now, despite having home-ice advantage over the Rangers in the second round.

Isles bring back Seidenberg — one year, $1.25 million

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The Islanders saw enough from Dennis Seidenberg this season to bring him back for another.

On Monday, the club announced it had signed the veteran defenseman to a one-year deal. Per Newsday, it’s for $1.25 million — a slight raise from the $1M he earned this season.

Seidenberg, 35, caught on with the Isles in late September, parlaying a good showing with Team Europe at the World Cup into a contract after going the entire summer unsigned.

For New York, it worked out very well.

Seidenberg was a regular lineup fixture, averaging 19:26 TOI over 73 games. He also provided some good production from the back end, scoring five goals and 22 points — his highest offensive output in five years.

Today’s deal also gives the Isles some flexibility when it comes to the upcoming expansion draft. The club now has six blueliners under contract for next season — Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey and Scott Mayfield — and a seventh, pending RFA Calvin de Haan, will (presumably) be locked in as well. The same might be said of fellow RFA Adam Pelech.

Young d-man Ryan Pulock, who only appeared in one game this year, locked in through 2018.

Cassidy ‘absolutely’ wants to return as Bruins’ head coach

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To nobody’s surprise, Bruce Cassidy is on board with shedding his interim tag and becoming Boston’s full-time bench boss.

“Absolutely,” Cassidy said of coming back, following the Bruins’ opening-round playoff loss to Ottawa (per CBS Boston). “One hundred percent.”

One would think the 51-year-old did enough to warrant a longer look. After replacing Claude Julien in early February, Cassidy led a team on the fringes of the playoff picture to an 18-8-1 record down the stretch, and a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division.

Yes, the B’s fell short against the Sens, but were hamstrung by a depleted lineup missing the likes of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo. Top center David Krejci was also extremely limited, missing three of six games to injury.

When further asked about his future, Cassidy tapped the brakes on predicting what will happen, or what changes the team needed for next season.

“Well, now we’re making a lot of assumptions,” he said. “That will be determined going forward by management. It’s a tough question to answer.”

Cassidy’s time with Boston’s AHL affiliate in Providence, and his history working with young players, may certainly help his cause. A few of his guys — Austin Czarnik, Frank Vatrano, Tommy Cross, Noel Acciari — forged out roles with the big club this season, while other youngsters certainly made an impact in the playoffs.

Prized d-man prospect Charlie McAvoy was a central figure on defense, and one of Cassidy’s more notable lineup moves — putting Sean Kuraly in for Games 5 and 6 — gave the club a boost of energy.

That said, the B’s do have options on the coaching front.

There are a number of experienced bench bosses available. Lindy Ruff, Darryl Sutter and Jack Capuano — a former teammate of Sweeney’s, it should be mentioned — are just a few of the higher profile free agents out there. It’s unclear if Boston is interested in going this route, however. Cassidy has been with the organization a long time, going on eight seasons, and has certainly paid his dues.