It seemed like a routine transaction when the Kings, seemingly secure with Jonathan Quick as their No. 1 goaltender and freshly minted Stanley Cup champion Jeff Zatkoff slotted into the backup role, waived Peter Budaj in order to reassign him to the minor leagues on Oct. 3. Budaj, who had signed with the Kings as a free agent in 2015 and had recently turned 34, seemed destined to finish out his career in the American Hockey League.
But fate intervened when Quick injured his groin in the season opener and Zat-koff twice experienced groin problems. Budaj was recalled from Ontario of the AHL on Oct. 13 and has become indispensable: He was poised to appear in his 20th straight game Saturday night when the Kings faced the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center, the longest such stretch of his career.
"It's definitely something that if somebody would tell me that a few months ago I would be like, 'You're crazy. You're out of your mind,' " the Slovkian-born Budaj said. "It just shows you that stuff in hockey happens quick.
"You don't want to go in net when somebody gets hurt. It's very unfortunate for the person that got hurt. On the other hand, it's an opportunity for me to showcase myself and work hard and try to help the team win games, just stay humble and be excited and work hard and just try to do the best you can. There's no recipe for that. I'm just very blessed and thankful to be here. The way the guys are playing in front of me is great and really awesome. Especially now, we've had a few injuries and the team really pulled together and they're sticking together and playing really well in front of me, and I'm thankful for that."
Budaj, who was due to make his 18th start, had 11 wins, two shutouts, a 2.10 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in his first 19 appearances. He's likely to keep the starting job for a while, because Quick only recently began the rehabilitation process and Zatkoff (0-3, 3.39, .875) hasn't regained Coach Darryl Sutter's confidence.
"He played a lot of games last year. He should be wanting to play a hundred in a row," Sutter said of Budaj, who played 60 AHL games last season and was voted the league's top goalie.
Sutter also said he's not concerned that Budaj will become fatigued because the Kings' schedule isn't as frantic in the short term as it was earlier this month. "I was concerned on this last trip. He was supposed to have the whole Ottawa game off and he didn't, and it ended up costing us a game," Sutter said, referring to Zat-koff pulling himself from the Nov. 11 game because of a groin problem, which forced Budaj to come in cold. "That hurt our team and hurt Peter for a couple games because he just couldn't get refreshed."
Sutter said he wants Zatkoff to have some good practices before the coaches plan a goaltending change. "He's got to be 100% and say, "I'm ready to win, to help you win,' and we have to feel the same way," Sutter said. "He's kind of got to reset and start over. He will. That's how we've got to see it. But in terms of when he's going to play, I don't know."
In the meantime, Budaj is perfectly happy to keep on going with a team he appreciates and in a city he has come to enjoy.
He joked that he sometimes misses rain, but he's happy to get frequent glimpses of the ocean and watch his 6-year-old son, also named Peter, play for the Junior Kings.
"I'm very thankful for the chance that I got given here and the possibility of playing as many games as I'm playing," he said. "I'm very excited and I try to work hard, try to not overthink stuff. I'm very thankful and blessed because I want to play and show everybody I can still do this."