The Canadiens announced Thursday that starting goaltender Carey Price will miss the remainder of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Ottawa Senators with a lower-body injury, thrusting Budaj into the spotlight.
At age 30, Budaj will start a playoff game for the first time in his eight-season NHL career with no room for error. His team is down 3-1 in the best-of-7 series heading into Game 5 Thursday at Bell Centre (7 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS, CNBC), and his goal simply will be to get the Canadiens to a Game 6 in Ottawa on Saturday.
"I believe our players play hard in front of Carey, and I believe it's the same thing in front of Peter," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "I think the guys respect him a lot and they compete in front of him. That goes both ways, Peter is working really hard for his teammates."
Budaj had the best regular-season numbers of his NHL career in 2012-13, going 8-1-1 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .909 save percentage and one shutout in 13 games. Therrien gave Budaj the start in Montreal's final regular-season game at the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 27, a 4-1 victory, so it's been less than two weeks since he last played.
"I did everything I could to keep myself prepared," Budaj said Wednesday, "to keep myself physically and mentally sharp."
Price was hurt in the final seconds of regulation in Game 4 on Tuesday. He showed some discomfort after Cory Conacher scored with 22.6 seconds left to tie the game as Kyle Turris and Josh Gorges were jostling for position in the crease. Moments later, Price reached for a high shot and fell to the ice, staying down for a moment before skating to the locker room on his own when the third period ended. When overtime started, Budaj was in goal for the Canadiens.
Now he has the Canadiens' season in his hands.
"I sat down with Peter this morning," Therrien said. "I told him that it's not a case of feeling pressure, not at all. This is an opportunity to perform like he has all season. You can't forget, when you work hard and perform, you have fun. It's important for him to take this opportunity."
Budaj's last playoff action prior to allowing a goal on two shots in overtime Tuesday came in 2010 as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. That was in relief of Craig Anderson, the current Senators goalie, whom Budaj will need to outperform to give his team a chance to play another game.
"He's a good goalie," Canadiens forward Colby Armstrong said of Budaj. "He competes hard and gives us a chance to win. He's played great for us this year when he's had to come in; he's shut the door and got us some big points throughout the season. He knows nothing changes in here with the way we feel about him and how we think he can play. We have a lot of faith in him."