ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj hardly believed his best days were behind him even as he rode the bench as a backup.
He simply thought he needed another shot in net. And not just a game here or there, but a steady dose of playing time where one bad night wouldn’t sideline him for a week.
With Craig Anderson out indefinitely because a knee injury, Budaj has that chance again to show he’s still a worthy starter.
“The circumstances are not pleasant to see your fellow goaltender get hurt, but it’s an opportunity for me,” said the 28-year-old Budaj, set to start Thursday night at home against Vancouver. “Every goalie wants to play, glad to get to play. I’m going to make most of it.”
There was a time when Budaj was the netminder the Avalanche relied on heavily. He went 20-29 in 2008-09, when they finished last in the Western Conference, leading to sweeping changes in the organization.
Anderson was brought in last season, won the job over Budaj in training camp and went on to establish franchise records in starts, minutes, shots faced and saves as the Avalanche returned to the post-season.
Budaj was banished to the bench, appearing in a career-low 15 games.
He could’ve left over the summer, speculation even surfacing that he might be headed to Russia. But Budaj said those were just false rumours and he elected to re-sign with the Avalanche for another season, staying with the only NHL organization he’s known.
“It’s my home,” Budaj explained with a shrug of his shoulders. “I love it here.”
Now, he’s eager to prove he can return to the level in which he won 31 games for Colorado four years ago.
“I don’t want to sound like this is the end of my rope, meaning that I want to be satisfied with being No. 2,” Budaj said. “I’m still going to strive to be a No. 1 goalie and try to battle whenever I get a chance to play, show everybody what I can do.”
Despite losing his starting job, Budaj hasn’t sulked or scowled. In fact, he has served as Anderson’s eyes off the ice, frequently offering pointers on tendencies a team may have on a power play, a move a player might use in a shootout.
“I tried to take care of the stuff you have control over,” said Budaj, a member of Slovakia’s fourth-place team in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “The rest is out of my hands. I’ve just got to stay positive and be ready whenever the situation comes.”
With Anderson so entrenched in net, Budaj has been forced to find ways to stay sharp, just in case he’s suddenly summoned. At each practice, he would arrive early, taking shots from whoever was on the ice. After the workout, he would stay on and practice the topic du jour.
“Sometimes it was the longer shots, sometimes tips, sometimes screen shots or plays around the net,” Budaj said. “Whatever needed to be done.”
He treated each moment like it was a game situation, realizing it might be as close as he got for a while.
“If you take it lightly, boom, you’re in net and you have that chance and that chance is going to slip through your hands because you’re not ready,” he said. “You’ve got to stay pretty sharp, because you never know what can happen.”
Like freak accidents.
Anderson was hurt during the final warmup drill in Vancouver on Oct. 26. Not scheduled to start that night, Anderson was taking shots from teammates at close range when he abruptly went down and skated gingerly to the bench.
There’s no timetable for Anderson’s return. The team recalled veteran goaltender John Grahame from the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League to be Budaj’s backup.
Budaj has won two straight games and also recently reached a milestone. He became just the third goalie in franchise history to play in 200 contests, joining his idol Patrick Roy (478 games) and Dan Bouchard (225).
“It’s a big achievement,” Budaj said. “Sometimes, you get caught up in the moment and you forget how fortunate you are to play in the NHL. … I’m going to do my best to keep their trust.”
And the starting job.