Newly-acquired Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Peter Budaj has had considerable success against the Pittsburgh Penguins throughout his career.
In eight games versus the Penguins, Budaj has compiled a 3-1-2 record with one shutout, a 2.70 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. This season against the Pens while with the Los Angeles Kings, Budaj won both of his starts, making 21-of-23 stops in a 3-2 home victory on November 3 and following up with a 39-save shutout performance in Pittsburgh on December 16.
With that in mind, Budaj will get the call when the Lightning take on the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena tonight (7 p.m. puck drop).
"I'm looking forward to tonight," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said of Budaj making his Bolts debut against the Penguins. "I'm not going to jinx this, but I heard he had a pretty good record here this year against Pittsburgh. Hopefully he can help us out."
Budaj came to the Lightning as part of the trade that sent Ben Bishop to the Kings. In 53 appearances with Los Angeles this season, Budaj is 27-20-3 with a 2.12 GAA and .917 save percentage. His seven shutouts this season are tied for most in the NHL with Washington's Braden Holtby.
"He's a little different from what we're used to having in practice," Stralman said. "He's a little smaller, reads the play well. It's a little different from Bish and Vasy and even (Kristers Gudlevskis) when he's up. They're big goaltenders. He's on a smaller side, but he reads the game really well. Real hard to score on and he's very mobile as well."
Budaj isn't tiny by any means at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, but compared to the 6-foot-3 Vasilevskiy and the 6-foot-7 Bishop, he shows more of the net than Bolts players are used to seeing in practice. His slightly smaller frame should make scoring against him a bit easier, but that's not the case according to Stralman.
"Well, I think there's more space, but I can't seem to score anyway," Stralman said, grinning. "He's quick. The goalies have their assets, and I think in his case, his speed and reading the play are his."
STARTING SLOWLY: The Lightning have been victimized by poor starts over their last two games, the Bolts falling behind 1-0 following the first period Monday against Ottawa and digging themselves a 2-1 hole and getting outshot 18-4 after the first 20 minutes Wednesday versus Carolina.
The fact the Lightning were able to rally and win both games shows their resiliency. But if they want to continue climbing in the Eastern Conference standings and grab a playoff spot, getting off to better starts will be paramount.
"We're coming down the stretch here, and we've been extremely fortunate to pull out some games here we weren't at our best at the start," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's a mindset. We've really focused on that in the last day and a half here of how we want to come out in games, and it's up to the guys. It's a mindset going into the game, understanding that a lot's been going on the last couple of days. As of today, we'll chalk it up to that, and hopefully have a better start tonight."
Tampa Bay scored four goals in the second period against Ottawa, including three straight on the power play, to end up blowing out the Senators 5-1. They struggled mightily two days later versus the Hurricanes but were able to take a 3-2 lead in the third period and eventually won 4-3 in overtime on Victor Hedman's game-winner 46 seconds into the extra frame.
"(Our start) needs to be a lot better," Stralman said. "It kind of sets the tone, and I think against Ottawa, we found our game somewhat. We played fairly well, but, in all honestly, I think our power play won that game. Against Carolina, we had another bad start, and we just couldn't get going. We got really lucky in that game. I think our starts dictate kind of the rest of the game, and it needs to be a lot better.
"We're not going to win tonight having a bad start. They're going to crush us."
SCOREBOARD WATCHING: The Lightning are within four points of the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference coming into tonight's contest against the Penguins, the Bolts trailing both the New York Islanders and Toronto for that last spot but with a game in hand on the Maple Leafs. The Lightning are six points back of Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division.
Having won two-straight games and going 7-1-2 over their last 10, the Lightning have continued to close the gap between themselves and the rest of the East. Stralman, for one, said it's fun watching the standings fluctuate each night while watching the Bolts continue to creep up.
"There are big games all over the league, and the fact we're closing in is encouraging too," he said. "We definitely have more work to do, but, lately, we've been playing really well. Coming down with 20 games left, it's not that one game that's going to make a difference, it's the team that can play consistent and handle the pressure and win the key games."
ICE CHIPS: Tampa Bay has earned at least a point in six straight road games coming into Pittsburgh, going 3-0-3 starting with a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on January 24. "We needed to come off that trip at least .500, and we did," Stralman said, referring to the Bolts' six-game road trip that started in California and ended at Florida. "That's a really tough road trip, and I think we found something on that trip that kind of carried over and gave us a little momentum. We found our stride, and we're still working on it."…With 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) over his last four games, Bolts forward Nikita Kucherov tied a franchise record for most points over a four-game stretch set previously by Vinny Lecavalier on Nov. 8-16, 2007 and again Nov. 10-19, 2007…Victor Hedman (282 career points) needs four more points to tie Freddy Modin (286 career points) for seventh place on the Lightning's all-time scoring leaders list…Hedman is one goal and one assist from matching his career high set during the 2013-14 season, and he's two points from tying his career high for scoring from the same season.