MONTREAL — If Carey Price, the Canadiens’ No. 1 netminder, has what goalie coach Stéphane Waite describes as arguably the toughest job in professional sports, then the position of backup Peter Budaj isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
While Price has the advantage of playing bunches of games in succession, getting into a groove, Budaj is expected to be razor sharp on those rare occasions when he gets the call.
This season, Budaj has played four games to Price’s 18. But even with limited action, the 30-year-old has shone in the Canadiens net, showing a .945 save percentage and a 1.48 goals-against average.
Expect Budaj to see action this weekend with the Canadiens playing back-to-back games: in Washington on Friday, then back at the Bell Centre on Saturday against Pittsburgh.
Budaj watched the first three games this season from the bench, played one, sat for the next seven, played two of the next four, sat for four, played one, then has sat the past two.
Needless to say, this doesn’t help a goalie find his rhythm.
If Waite’s primary focus in Montreal is shaping Price into the goaltender that the organization needs for the long term, the coach must also do vital work with Budaj.
And Waite speaks glowingly of Price’s backup — of both his talent in goal and the attitude he brings to the rink.
“I have a lot of respect for backup goalies,” said Waite, who worked with plenty during a decade in Chicago.
“You can sit for seven, 10 days and suddenly you have to go in the net and win the game. That’s a tough job. I’ve always said, if the backup doesn’t play a minimum of .500, you don’t make the playoffs. Most of the time, he’s the reason why you make the playoffs or not.”
Waite reinforces the positive with Budaj, whom he says arrives at the rink in perpetually high spirits.
“I say to Peter a lot: ‘Stay positive every day, you’re very important to us,’ ” Waite said. “He’s been unbelievable.
“Peter has a great attitude, he’s always in a good mood and he works hard because he must. After every practice he does extra time, the first on the ice, the last off. He understands his role, which is very important.”
Budaj, he says, will regularly point out little things he sees in Price’s game, always with a genuine desire to help.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen the backup want the No. 1 goalie to be so good,” Waite said. “Peter and Carey have a great relationship.”
Budaj arrived with the Canadiens as a free agent for the 2011-12 season. He played 17 games that year, going 5-7-5, then 13 more last year, with a sterling 8-1-1 record.
Waite envisions Budaj playing 20-25 games this season, Price getting a total of 65, maximum.
“I don’t believe goalies should play 72, 73, 74 games,” Waite said, Price having played a franchise-record 72 in 2010-11, hard-working and supportive backup Alex Auld appearing in 16.
“By the playoffs, a lot of those goalies are tired mentally and physically,” he said of the workhorses. “There’s a lot of pressure in the playoffs. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of goalies have great years, but the last couple of weeks and the playoffs they’ve been too tired, not the same.
“Budes wants to play every game, of course, and I hope he wants to. But he understands his role and wishes good things for Carey.
“That kind of backup goalie is going to be in the league a long time.”
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