MONTREAL -- The one player most people figure the Montreal Canadiens cannot afford to lose to injury is goaltender Carey Price. Peter Budaj is proving that perhaps a Price injury is not as disastrous as most people believe.
Budaj started his third straight game with Price out with a lower-body injury and has allowed the Canadiens to pick up five out of a possible six points after a 4-3 overtime win Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Max Pacioretty's second goal of the game, at 3:28 of overtime, gave Montreal the victory, but he was happier to see Budaj thriving during this unexpected opportunity to play.
"He's been unbelievable," Pacioretty said. "He's kept us in all three games that he's played and he's come up with some huge saves in some key moments. The most important thing a goalie can do is come up with some big saves at the right time, and it looks like he's got that right now.
"We see him work hard every day. Maybe you guys don't see what goes on behind the scenes, but he's one of the hardest-working goalies I've ever seen. It's good to see him getting rewarded."
Price has not played since winning the gold medal for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Budaj lost 2-1 in overtime to the Detroit Red Wings and won 6-5 in a shootout at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday and Thursday. Starting three games in four nights would be difficult on any goaltender, but considering how seldom Budaj plays as the backup to one of the best goalies in the NHL, his performance under those circumstances becomes that much more impressive.
Last season, Price was injured at the end of regulation in Game 4 of the Canadiens' first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs loss to the Ottawa Senators. Budaj started overtime of that game and allowed the winning goal 2:32 later before giving up six goals on 29 shots in Game 5.
That was Budaj's 11th start of last season, and he said he feels this week may prevent a repeat performance should the situation present itself again.
"It's great to see how the guys are playing in front of me; I give them a lot of credit," Budaj said. "I feel good out there. I made a couple of saves and I'm starting to get in a rhythm. So hopefully whenever I get a chance to play I'll be able to help the team again."
The win was as much about Pacioretty as it was about Budaj.
After Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier was called for delay of game in overtime for freezing the puck to negate a potential Daniel Briere breakaway, Pacioretty took a no-look pass from Andrei Markov in the slot and beat Bernier high to score his 29th goal of the season.
It was Markov's third assist of the game and Pacioretty's eighth shot on goal. And it was a rocket.
But what Budaj finds so impressive about his teammate's ability to shoot is how quickly it leaves his stick, not the velocity.
"Every player has a good shot, but he has an exceptional shot with his release," Budaj said. "It's how quick he can get it off in a game. Many guys have a great shot in practice, but in a game situation you have to get the shot off quick. He's been able to do that. That's the key. It's not the hardest shot that beats the goalie, it's the quickest."
Prior to the game, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle spoke about how important it would be for his team to remain disciplined, but it was something the Maple Leafs were unable to do with the Canadiens scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals on the power play.
A penalty for interference by Toronto's Tim Gleason at 10:36 of the third period allowed Montreal to tie it on P.K. Subban's ninth goal of the season. The defenseman ended a 13-game drought with a one-timer from the point that beat Bernier to the blocker side 16 seconds later.
"We had a one-goal lead and we took three straight penalties," Carlyle said. "Now we can challenge the validity of the penalties one way or another, but we took three straight penalties, two of them specifically in overtime to go down 4-on-3. And Subban breaks his stick [on the winning goal] and it goes right to their player on the shot and then comes back out and right on to Pacioretty's stick off a pass and it's in the middle of the net. In that situation, you take the point and move on."
The Maple Leafs were down 2-0 in the first period before they registered their first shot on goal.
A turnover by Markov on a Canadiens power play opened the door for van Riemsdyk to tie the game on a breakaway at 5:28 of the third, then Kessel was allowed to get to the Montreal net unchecked to give Toronto a 3-2 lead at 7:43.
The tying goal was van Riemsdyk's second of the game, 26th of the season, giving him four goals and three assists in his past four games. Kessel's goal and assist gave him 13 goals and 18 assists in his past 17 games.
The win allowed the Canadiens (34-21-7) to widen their gap on the Maple Leafs (32-22-8) to three points in the Atlantic Division.
The Maple Leafs' first shot came at 14:38, when Jay McClement took an inoffensive attempt from the top of the faceoff circle, drawing mock cheers from the considerable number of Toronto fans in the Bell Centre crowd.
By that point the Canadiens had nine shots on goal, and two of them had gone in.
Alex Galchenyuk scored at 12:38 when he stopped a Markov shot in the high slot, spun and fired it toward Bernier. The shot hit the stick of Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly and went in for Galchenyuk's 11th goal of the season.
Montreal made it 2-0 1:24 later on a very similar play when Pacioretty got the puck in the high slot, spun, and took a backhand that got past a Brendan Gallagher screen and behind Bernier.
Van Riemsdyk made it 2-1 at 17:34 when he tipped Kessel's shot from the side boards through his legs and past Budaj.
The second period was mired in sloppy play with little action and fewer scoring chances, but the third period changed that almost immediately after it began.
About 35 seconds in, Kessel was given a one-timer at the side of the net, but Budaj got across with a pad save to rob him of a sure goal.
It was another example of how Budaj has helped the Canadiens get through a difficult stretch without their franchise goalie, and why they might feel a bit more confident in case it happens again.