How the Montreal Canadiens Should Manage Their Goaltending Heading into Playoffs

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How the Montreal Canadiens Should Manage Their Goaltending Heading into Playoffs
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
Montreal Canadien Carey Price celebrates a victory.

The Montreal Canadiens continue to show confidence in backup Peter Budaj, casting at least a small shadow of doubt as to just how head coach Michel Therrien will manage his goaltending heading into the playoffs.

On Thursday, the Habs signed Budaj to a two-year $2.8-million extension and promptly gave the net to the man who otherwise would have become an unrestricted free agent this summer. That evening, he helped Montreal become just the third team to clinch a playoff spot this season, leading the team to an impressive 5-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

For the record, Budaj’s overall 2.13 GAA and .918 save percentage are better than Carey Price’s 2.28 GAA and .915 save percentage, not so much sparking a controversy as to who should be the starter come the playoffs, but at the very least begging the question: Just how many games should the Habs give Budaj over the next few weeks?

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
Montreal Canadien Peter Budaj makes a save on Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets.

Admittedly, he didn’t need to be all that good on Thursday, as he faced just 15 shots. However, by the same token, he had already proven himself as being worthy of a raise from the $1.15 million he had been making, if not another chance at a starting job in the National Hockey League.

To all Jesus Price disciples out there who might be left fuming at that last statement, it wasn’t intended as a plea that he be given the chance at Montreal’s starting job. To be clear, had he decided to pursue free agency Budaj could theoretically have made a case that he was a number-one-caliber goalie again, despite all the trials and tribulations he suffered through as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

With the Habs acquiring Dustin Tokarski from the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the season, just after Budaj got off to a 0-1-1 start with nine goals allowed on 67 shots, Montreal at the very least had a backup waiting in the wings had Budaj continued to struggle.

But he didn’t.

Including Thursday’s victory, Budaj has won his last seven starts and is 7-1-1 on the season. Over those seven games (not so much the first two), he has been near-dominant, posting a 1.57 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Those numbers are nearly as good as Ottawa Senator Craig Anderson’s league-leading ones in just 11 more games this season (Anderson has a 1.53 GAA and .949 save percentage).

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Dustin Tokarski, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While $1.4 million per season is more than the ideal amount to give a backup goalie, Budaj is far from the highest-paid one in the league (just ask Vancouver Canuck Roberto Luongo…literally). Looking at backups with contracts into next season, Budaj would now be the 10th-highest-paid one in the league, while only Los Angeles King Jonathan Bernier has a better GAA.

Admittedly, Budaj has only played nine games, meaning less chance for his stats to overinflate. Most of his starts have also come against less-than-stellar opponents (two games against Buffalo, including one overtime loss, as well as single games against the Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes).

One could very well argue those games have skewed his stats for the better, but look at the facts:

 

  1. Budaj has also played the Boston Bruins twice, once starting and winning, and once relieving Price and leading the Habs to a comeback victory.
  2. He has also played the likes of the Ottawa Senators, who are by all accounts playoff-bound, and the Winnipeg Jets, who are currently desperate for points, on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
  3. Price has only a relatively decent record (9-6-3) against teams currently in the playoffs this season.

 

Again, no one is arguing that Price isn’t Montreal’s No. 1 goalie. Truth be told, this piece offers credence to that fact. I mean, shouldn’t Montreal rest Price as much as possible for the playoffs?

The Habs have already locked up a playoff berth, are all but guaranteed home-ice advantage in the playoffs (at least for the first round), and even if they weren’t Budaj has more than proven himself capable under pressure.

Not only that, but the Habs as a team have shown confidence playing in front of him, allowing an average of 24.3 shots in each of his appearances. While that includes his one period of work against Boston, it’s still impressive and, to put it in the proper perspective, the New Jersey Devils currently lead the league with an average of 23.9 shots allowed per game (overall, Montreal is fifth with 27).

How many of the Habs' remaining games should they let Peter Budaj start?

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The Habs have eight games left. Two are against the Toronto Maple Leafs: Saturday’s game and the last of the season in two weeks. Logic dictates that Price will get at least the first one (as Budaj just started on Thursday) as well as the last, even if the Habs already know who they’re going to play come the playoffs.

After all, it is Toronto.

That leaves six games, three at home and three on the road—two against teams currently in the playoffs (Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins) and four against teams that aren’t (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg).

Budaj should get at least three of those games, including Tampa at home on April 18 as it’s a second game in two nights (Price should play the first, against Pittsburgh). That’s the easiest call to make.

Less easy? Philadelphia, also at home, on April 15. The Flyers may be out of the race, but they’re still tough to play, meaning a test for whoever is in net. Since Price will have theoretically just played Toronto and he didn’t have his best outing against the Flyers on April 3 (four goals allowed in a loss), Budaj should get the net instead.

That leaves the Caps at home on April 20, the Devils in New Jersey on April 23 and the Jets in Winnipeg on April 25.

Assuming Budaj indeed gets Tampa, the Caps should be taken out of the equation as him getting that game would mean him playing two straight. In order to prevent any annoying whispers of a goaltending controversy, that leaves just the Devils and Winnipeg on the road.

Both teams have the potential to beat the Habs, with Jersey having Martin Brodeur and the potential for Winnipeg to still be in the race for a playoff berth. There are of course no guarantees the goaltending duties are divided up like this the rest of the way, but, on the off chance they are, Therrien can clearly rest easy with his decision on whichever one of these two games he gives Budaj.

The Northeast Division may still be up for grabs, and, to a lesser extent, the Eastern Conference, but playing Budaj wouldn’t necessarily mean throwing in the towel in regard to capturing either of those titles (and the better seeds that come with them).

Price is clearly Montreal’s starter, but, as the Habs have proven time and time again during the regular season, they don’t need him to win. With Price’s shaky playoff history, Budaj at least serves as a viable insurance policy that trend will continue into the postseason.

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