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Peter Budaj sparkling after sputtering

Kings goalie tied for NHL lead in shutouts thanks to positive reinforcement, coaching

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Los Angeles Kings goaltender Peter Budaj failed to win a game with St. John's of the American Hockey League during the 2014-15 season.

Less than two years later, Budaj is tied for the NHL lead with six shutouts and seventh in the League with 24 wins, matching his total from the previous five seasons combined.

The Kings called up Budaj from Ontario of the AHL after starter Jonathan Quick was injured in the season opener, and he's helped Los Angeles stay in a Stanley Cup Playoffs spot with a .922 save percentage that is tied for sixth among goalies with at least 20 games, and a 2.01 goals-against average that ranks third.

So how did Budaj, now 34, go from winless in the AHL two years ago to workhorse NHL No.1 now? He credits the Kings goalie coaches, Bill Ranford in the NHL and Dusty Imoo in the AHL.

Video: Budaj earns Wednesday's Pepsi Zero Sugar Shutout

"Billy helped my game so much staying on top of the detail, and getting adjusted to switch from American Hockey League to NHL is big," Budaj said. "And I wouldn't be here without Dusty."

In between the winless season and this one, Budaj spent a year with Imoo and the Kings' AHL affiliate in Ontario, but it was hardly a one-step process to step up. Before Budaj could begin working his way back, he had to let go of his disappointing departure from the NHL, which began with a trade from the Montreal Canadiens to the Winnipeg Jets on the eve of the 2014-15 season and a demotion to the AHL a day later.

Budaj went 0-9-6 with an .888 save percentage in 19 games during his season with St. John's.

"He has a strong personality and it was tough for him to accept, and he never did really accept it that year," said Imoo, who was the goalie coach in St. John's that season. "He kept trying harder and harder. It wasn't like he said, 'To heck with it, I quit.' He always worked hard, but he never really accepted it. I told him until he learned to move on it was going to be a battle. It was almost like an alcoholic or drug addict; you have to hit rock bottom first."

Budaj became a free agent that summer but there were no NHL offers, so he accepted a tryout offer from the Kings, who recently had hired Imoo as their goalie development coach.

Video: COL@LAK: Budaj kicks out Duchene's backhand

"I told him it was a great thing," Imoo said. "I told him, 'It's kind of like, you're a kid again, and that can be great because you can let everything go and move on and start all over … I believe it will bring the best out of you.'"

Budaj responded by going 42-14-4 with nine shutouts, a .932 save percentage and a 1.75 goals-against average with Ontario last season. He was named the AHL's outstanding goaltender.

Part of the process was getting Budaj out of a backup mindset. Praised by Montreal Canadiens starter Carey Price as the best partner he'd played with, Budaj excelled in the backup role, which includes a lot of extra time as a human target for teammates in practice.

"And in the games you do get into you are just supposed to be solid, not spectacular," Imoo said. "It's not costing the team versus trying to win. You have to bring that out again."

As a backup playing infrequently in the NHL, solid technique and neutral positioning can be a recipe for consistency compared with goalies who play with more flow and movement and therefore tend to rely more on the rhythm and timing that can be hard to find when you're not playing a lot. Imoo wanted to put more of the latter back into Budaj's game.

"He was really just getting out and standing there," Imoo said. "He'd stopped tracking because he felt he was in position. But in the AHL stuff happens, there's more scrambles and it's harder to find pucks. So it was getting his skills back, his athleticism back, all the stuff that because he'd been playing in the NHL for a long time as a backup and it was like, he'd just lost. He had to learn how to make big saves again and make saves he wasn't supposed to."

After Imoo got Budaj back into a starter's mindset in the AHL last season, Ranford has tightened up some of the finer technical details required to thrive in the NHL this season.

Video: LAK@ARI: Budaj makes last-second kick save in traffic

"In the American Hockey League he was just on another level with his experience," Ranford said, "so even if he was off a little bit it didn't matter, whereas in the NHL it's a goal."

They focused on Budaj's play on his posts and cleaning up his tracking with the puck behind the net, making sure he was consistently choosing the right time and positioning when he gave up his sight on the puck while switching from one side of his crease to the other.

"The importance of detail every single night has been the big push," Ranford said.

It's all part of a two-season transformation from backup to No.1.

"Playing the number of games he did in the American Hockey League definitely helped the mentality aspect of being a No.1 again," Ranford said. "There's no doubt about that."

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