One of Coach Darryl Sutter's biggest laments since Jonathan Quick suffered a groin injury in the Los Angeles Kings' season opener was that none of the goalies who tried to fill Quick's skates could steal a win, that they couldn't will the Kings to victory with an unyielding effort, as Quick so often has done.
In the 30th game of the season — and with a tired team finishing a back-to-back sequence on the road — Sutter finally got that stolen victory.
Peter Budaj, pulled from his previous start in Buffalo after failing to make a timely save, made 39 saves Friday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. Tyler Toffoli's goal one minute into overtime, made possible when Penguins forward Phil Kessel broke his stick while taking a shot and opened the way for a 3-on-1 break for the Kings, was all they needed for a 1-0 triumph that ended Pittsburgh's seven-game winning streak and turned their own trip to the positive side at 2-1.
"I thought he played a really strong game. It's good to see him bounce back," Sutter said after Budaj's third shutout this season. "He had a tough game in Buffalo. Actually, his last couple of road starts have been tough, one in Arizona and one in Buffalo, so it's really good to see. You need good goaltending to win hockey games."
Budaj was better than good as the Kings neutralized four disadvantages, including Pittsburgh's 30-second, 5-on-3 power play in the first period. "Buds was awesome. He was unbelievable," defenseman Alec Martinez said. "He was probably the biggest reason why we were still in it and why we won."
That they blanked the Penguins' high-powered offense was a bonus to Budaj. "The most important thing is to win," he said. "The shutout is like the cherry on a cake. It feels great."
Toffoli, who took the first penalty in Pittsburgh's 5-on-3 advantage, acknowledged the Kings increased Budaj's workload by going to the box too often. "We took a lot of penalties, too many for us to kill. Buds was for sure on his game tonight," said Toffoli, who has three goals in his last two games after going 10 games without a goal. "He played incredible. He really deserved that shutout he got."
Toffoli provided the goal by finishing off that 3-on-1 break. After Kessel broke his stick and had to drop it, Martinez corralled the puck behind the Kings' net and made a touch pass to Tanner Pearson. He fed it to Toffoli, who passed it to Martinez on the rush. Martinez gave it back to Toffoli, who was on the right side, and Toffoli avoided diving defenseman Brian Dumoulin to stuff the puck past goalie Matt Murray. The Kings have beaten the Penguins twice in overtime this season and are 7-2 in overtime.
Martinez called it a character win, one that came at a pivotal time for the Kings after a bad loss in Buffalo on Tuesday and a tightly played win at Detroit on Thursday. Their results on this seven-game trip — which will continue with two games after the Christmas break — could have a big impact on their season. Budaj did his part Friday to turn this journey toward a successful outcome.
"It was a great game. I felt really good," said Budaj, who stopped NHL goal scoring leader Sidney Crosby three times and stopped equally fearsome Evgeni Malkin six times.
"I'm glad on back-to-back nights, especially in this building against this team and the strength of the team they have and so much firepower, we were able to get two points. It was a big win for us. They came out pretty hard, especially knowing it was a back-to-back for us. Thank God I was able to make some saves and felt good out there."
Quick isn't expected back before mid-February, so the Kings will need Budaj and Jeff Zatkoff to steal more wins. "Circle the wagons and stick together. That's what we do," Sutter said. "We don't get too caught up in what anybody says outside."
Inside their happy locker room Friday, Budaj said no one doubted they'd turn things around after that 6-3 loss at Buffalo. "We always knew we had it in us," he said.
The next step is for him to prove he has more game-stealing performances in him.