TAMPA — Peter Budaj has been a backup goaltender for around a decade.
The 35-year-old is comfortable with the role and how it works. He gets it. It still doesn’t make the job easy. When you play behind the likes of Carey Price, Jonathan Quick — and now, Andrei Vasilevskiy — you won’t see many starts.
"The backup goalie is probably the hardest position in definitely hockey, but in all sports," wing Chris Kunitz said.
"I don’t envy the position," coach Jon Cooper said.
But Budaj has handled it well, with the Lightning’s 5-2 win Thursday over the Avalanche the latest example. Budaj, making his first start in 12 days (and just fifth in 28 games), bounced back after a rough beginning to deliver some key saves to seal Tampa Bay’s third straight victory. This Lightning team (20-6-2) is the fastest to 20 wins in franchise history.
"(Budaj) was outstanding," captain Steven Stamkos said.
Though Vasilevskiy is the clear-cut No. 1, and one of the best in the world, the Lightning needs to keep Budaj sharp. It’s a challenge for Budaj, no matter how hard he practices, as nothing replicates game action. The first few minutes of a game are always the toughest, and Thursday was no different. Budaj allowed a goal 90 seconds in when Gabriel Landeskog got behind Nikita Kucherov. Then, late in the first, Erik Johnson scored off an odd-man rush on a seemingly innocent shot to tie the score at 2.
"Bad goal," Budaj said. "You try to move on. It’s not the end of the world. You focus and get the next save."
The next big one was game-changing. With the Lightning up 3-2 and on a power play with six minutes to go in the second, J.T. Compher got behind Victor Hedman on a shorthanded breakaway. Budaj held his ground, preserving the one-goal lead. He then thwarted another Compher breakaway in the third.
"He made some huge saves when the game was tight," Kunitz said. "It gives the guys some spirit on the bench. We’re definitely keeping those rah-rahs pretty high whenever he makes those breakaway saves."
Budaj credited the goal support he received. Stamkos had a three-point night, including a crucial goal to tie it at 1 in the first. Linemate Vladislav Namestnikov also had three points, his one goal the go-ahead tally on the power play. Kunitz added his second goal in as many games. Budaj made sure it held up.
"It’s the job of the backup," Cooper said. "You’re there when your name is called, give the team a chance to win. And when you’re not in, you just work, stay engaged and help your partner.
"I think there’s been nobody better in the league that’s done it in the last 10, 15 years than Peter Budaj. … Think about the guys he’s been behind: Carey Price, Jonathan Quick and now Andrei Vasilevskiy. And he’s been a good partner for all those guys."
Experience helps Budaj, who knew what he was getting into when he signed a two-year deal last summer. Goalie coach Frantz Jean said then the Lightning hoped to get Budaj 20-25 starts over the season. Jean said his philosophy is to play the backup once every four games.
But the Lightning gave Vasilevskiy a good chunk of the starts early so he knew it was his net in his first full season as No. 1. Vasilevskiy’s 23 starts entered Thursday tied for the second in the league, Calgary’s Mike Smith among a group with an NHL-most 25. Budaj entered Thursday having given up four or more goals in three of his first four starts, though his loss to the Penguins included two 5-on-3 power-play goals and a shorthanded breakaway.
Stamkos said the team was very happy to see Budaj rewarded, given the veteran’s often thankless gig.
"Obviously you want to play, but I know the situation," Budaj said. " ‘Vasy’ is a great goalie; he’s our guy. I just want to get in there. Every chance I get to play, I want to give him some time off, help the team win games. That’s my job, I’m excited to be here. It’s not an easy job or anything like that. But that’s part of it, and I enjoy it."
First Period—1, Colorado, Landeskog 10 (MacKinnon), 1:21. 2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 12 (Namestnikov, T.Johnson), 1:46. 3, Tampa Bay, Kunitz 5 (Girardi, Paquette), 13:36. 4, Colorado, E.Johnson 3 (Andrighetto), 18:22. Penalties—Soderberg, COL, (delay of game), 5:44; Landeskog, COL, (slashing), 10:44.
Second Period—5, Tampa Bay, Namestnikov 12 (Stamkos, T.Johnson), 8:09. Penalties—Hedman, TB, (hooking), 1:45; Varlamov, COL, served by Wilson, (tripping), 11:01; Sergachev, TB, (cross checking), 16:21.
Third Period—6, Tampa Bay, Killorn 3 (Stamkos, Namestnikov), 4:57 (pp). 7, Tampa Bay, Point 11 (Gourde), 16:41 (sh). Penalties—Rantanen, COL, (holding stick), 3:37; Landeskog, COL, (tripping), 11:38; Stralman, TB, (hooking), 14:47. Shots on Goal—Colorado 7-9-14—30. Tampa Bay 17-10-5—32. Power-play opportunities—Colorado 0 of 3; Tampa Bay 1 of 5. Goalies—Colorado, Varlamov 8-6-1 (31 shots-27 saves). Tampa Bay, Budaj 1-2-1 (30-28).