Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

Peter Budaj and the not-so-idle life of a backup goalie

TAMPA — The NBC executives at Boston Garden were livid. That afternoon's nationally televised game between the Flyers and Bruins, teams that would meet that spring in the Stanley Cup final, was billed as "Bernie Parent and the Broad Street Bullies versus Phil Esposito and the Big, Bad Bruins."

Except Parent, one of the top goalies in the NHL, was not playing. His backup, Bobby "The Chief" Taylor, was.

So, the NBC brass went looking for Flyers coach Fred Shero. They found him sitting on the Zamboni, smoking a cigarette.

"Why is Taylor playing?" they asked.

Shero, as the story goes, took a drag, exhaled, and calmly replied, "Because it's Bobby's turn."

Taylor, the Lightning's TV studio analyst, did not get many turns during that 1973-74 season, playing just eight games behind Parent as the Flyers won the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

"I went eight weeks between games," Taylor said.

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He sat and watched Parent make 37 consecutive starts. That's the life of a backup goalie.

"Even though you're not going to start a majority of the games, you got to be ready," Lightning backup goalie Peter Budaj said. "I know people say, 'Oh, he's just saying that, but he just sits there on a towel.' You have to be ready whenever they call you. Sometimes you might go a week without a game. You can't lose it mentally, because you can get called on at any time."

Budaj will receive plenty of turns this season behind starter Andrei Vasilevskiy. He could start between 25 and 30 games as the Lightning tries to keep Vasilevskiy fresh for the extended playoff run it is planning on.

"Peter is a great veteran," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "He did a good job in L.A., and for us he did a good job (late last season) not in just the games he played but for his impact on our teams, and that's one of the reasons we brought him back."

The Lightning acquired Budaj, 35, from the Kings in February for goalie Ben Bishop. It re-signed him in the offseason because he is a quality backup. Last season filling in for injured Kings No. 1 Jonathan Quick, he won 27 times and posted seven shutouts in 53 games.

Budaj is not a young goalie who is trying to earn a starting job. He understands his role and value: Do everything he can to stay sharp between starts and help Vasilevskiy, entering his first NHL season as the frontline goalie.

"What I think is the best thing for him is he has an unbelievable attitude," Taylor said.

Make no mistake, Budaj wants to play, but …

"There's one net out there," he said, "so we understand the situation, because that's what makes us professionals."

Some backup goalies are assigned to chart faceoffs during games. Budaj, like Taylor did, acts as another coach while on the bench, shouting instructions to the skaters on the ice, letting them know where the puck is as they hustle back on defense.

Taylor said he took mental notes on how Parent played shots.

"That would keep me in the game, keep my edge up," Taylor said. "Use my nervous energy up."

Practice day is game day for backup goalies. The No. 1 goalie may relax a little, but the backup needs to face all the shots he can — as many as 500, Taylor said, over in a 90-minute practice — to remain sharp.

"He has to treat it like a game," Taylor said. In a game, if the other team scores, "the red light will go on, the lightning bolts are going to go off (from the Amalie Arena rafters) and 20,000 fans are going to be screaming, 'You idiot!' at him."

Taylor said he treated those rare starts with the Flyers as "Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals." A bad game coupled with a future Hall of Fame goalie who never wanted to take a game off could have meant weeks on the bench.

Budaj isn't under that much pressure. His starts will likely be mapped out in advance. A bad start will probably not alter that schedule.

And, Budaj said, playing as if it is Game 7 is the surest way to have a bad game.

"We're here, we're in the business of winning, the business of trying to ultimately win the Stanley Cup," he said. "That's what you prepare yourself for. You work for the team goal, and that is to win."

 
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