For Lightning veteran backup Peter Budaj, tonight's expected start in Los Angeles is something special.
Had it not been for the Kings, Budaj, 35, may not still be in the league.
Two years ago, Budaj thought his pro career might have been over, having lost all 15 starts for Winnipeg's AHL affiliate St. John's. He received no offers in free agency, but then the Kings brought him in on a camp tryout.
"They gave me a chance when nobody else would," Budaj said. "This will always be a special place for me."
After a bounce-back season with the Kings' AHL affiliate, Budaj entered last season as the third goaltender before injuries to starter Jonathan Quick and Jeff Zatkoff unexpectedly thrust him into the No. 1 role. Budaj was stellar, among the league leaders in goals against average, before getting dealt to Tampa Bay in February in the Ben Bishop trade. Budaj then signed a two-year, $2.05 million deal in the summer to be Andrei Vasilevskiy's backup, giving him security he never thought he'd have at this point in his career.
"Thank God everything fell into place for me," Budaj said. "It was pretty special the way things worked out. That's why you never know what's going to happen in hockey. I was very blessed that everything worked out in my favor. Sometimes, you don't know how quick things can change."
More notes: Coach Jon Cooper earned his 200th NHL win Wednesday in San Jose, joining John Tortorella as the only other coach to complete that feat in Tampa Bay… D Jake Dotchin scored his first NHL goal Wednesday, a one-timer from above the right circle. He pumped both fists in the air, then slammed the boards in celebration. "Obviously it was exciting, something I've looked forward to for sure," he said. RW Nikita Kucherov' scored his 15th goal in the team's 16th game, making him the third fastest to reach 15 since 2000-01, joining Steven Stamkos (16 in 2010-11), Dany Heatley (15, 2005-06), Daniel Alfredsson (16, 2005-06), Simon Gagne (12, 2005-06). Vladislav Namestnikov's two goals Wednesday gave him seven in 16 games, just three shy of his total from all of last season (10). . RW J.T. Brown has been impressive since rejoining the lineup two weeks ago, and coaches seem to think so, too, as his 14:46 even-strength TOI ranked fourth among forwards (behind only Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Namestnikov). F Chris Kunitz played in his 900th career game Wednesday. Stamkos said facing the Kings (11-2-2) will be a "character-test" for his team, which is 12-2-2.