BUFFALO – Peter Budaj isn’t scared of a little commitment.
Initially set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Budaj had no interest in waiting to test out the open market this summer. Instead of spending Canada Day packing up and moving like many Montrealers will, the veteran goaltender will instead head home for the offseason armed with a return flight.
“I wanted to decide where I wanted to be and where I wanted to play and Montreal felt really good. It’s a privilege to play for the Montreal Canadiens. With the great city and the best club with the most history and tradition, I didn’t really think about anything else,” explained Budaj, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Canadiens on Wednesday afternoon. “I love these guys; it’s a great group in here. We’re having some great success right now and we’ve got a good, young team, a great organization, and the greatest fans. It’s hard to pass on a chance like that.”
Despite getting fewer starts than he was used to in his early days with the Avalanche, Budaj has played some of the best hockey of his career since joining the Habs in July 2011. After posting a career-best 2.55 goals-against average last year, the eight-year NHL veteran will carry a stingy 2.28 GAA into Thursday’s game against the Sabres. Part of his eagerness to re-up with the Canadiens ahead of schedule has to do with the man behind his on-ice success since arriving in la Belle Province.
“PG [Pierre Groulx] works really well with me. He studies the game; he knows what Carey [Price] needs and he knows what I need. He loves his job and he’s passionate about it,” described Budaj of the Canadiens goaltending coach. “I appreciate that so much because I’m the type of guy where I want to get better all the time. He’s always there, trying to go over videos and show me how I can improve. I appreciate that. Having a great relationship with your goalie coach is important.”
While he’s taken a quality over quantity approach to his game since joining the Habs, Budaj isn’t anticipating the No.1 job opening up any time soon. With one of the best young goaltenders in the world signed through 2017-18, the Slovak netminder has no problem working to earn every second of crease time he’s given.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are; being an athlete, the competitiveness in you is always there. Once you lose that, you lose your whole ability to be an athlete,” explained Budaj, who saw action in just 17 games last year after averaging 40 starts a season in his first six years in the league. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a first line player or a fourth line player; you still have the competitiveness in you. It’s the same with me.
“I know my role on the team right now; I know this is Carey’s team and I’m going to have his back,” he stressed. “I’m going to be preparing like I always have, supporting the team and trying to be ready when I get the chance to play.”
On a hockey team, no relationship is as unique as the padded partnership between the starting goaltender and his backup. Far from a deterrent, getting the chance to continue working alongside the Canadiens’ three-time All-Star was a positive – even if it means Budaj will be spending less time between the pipes than he would like.
“Carey is a great guy. He and I have a great relationship. I learn a lot from him. He’s a great leader off the ice and he’s a great person off the ice,” confirmed Budaj. “He’s one of the top goaltenders in the league but he’s a very humble guy. He works really hard. It’s awesome that as a superstar on our team and in the league, he has that ability to work hard and be humble. It’s great to work with him and I’m looking forward to the next two years with him.”
The 30-year-old netminder will celebrate signing his new contract in fitting fashion: by putting his current six-game win streak on the line against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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