Cross Checks: Peter Budaj
If there is one thing that separates the good teams from the mediocre and the great ones from the good, it's consistency of effort. Poor teams invariably see wild swings in effort and results, sometimes within a few days. Monday was a perfect illustration of that. How do the New York Islanders look so good -- dare we say almost playoff-ready? -- in handling New Jersey 5-1 on Saturday night, then turn around and lay a complete egg in a 7-0 shellacking at home Monday afternoon by Philadelphia? Embarrassing. Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (is there no Plan B on the island in terms of goaltending?) gave up three in the second and three in the third, and from reports out of the game, he might have been the Isles' best player. It was just the third road win for the Flyers, one of the reasons they're outside the Eastern Conference playoff bubble.
Not a good day in Colorado for the on-ice officials, who blew an offside call that led to a Colorado goal, nor for Nashville backup Chris Mason, who has been solid this season but allowed six goals on 18 shots in less than two periods of play as the Predators were nipped 6-5. The game was the first for the Avalanche after blowing a 4-1 lead in Edmonton Saturday night, a game in which they gave up an Oilers-record 56 shots. Things looked like they might follow a similar pattern Monday as the Preds kept eating into Avalanche's leads, launching 38 shots on Semyon Varlamov, but the Avs held on. On the disputed goal by the suddenly red-hot Matt Duchene, officials mistakenly believed the Predators had played the puck back into their zone, allowing Duchene -- who was offside -- to go in alone and score.
Kudos to the Ottawa Senators and coach Paul MacLean for being able to turn attention away from the loss of Erik Karlsson for the balance of the season. With Ben Bishop giving Craig Anderson a break in net, Bishop matched the peerless Martin Brodeur save for save as the Senators ended up with a 2-1 victory in a shootout Monday afternoon. Jakob Silfverberg scored the only goal of the shootout. Bishop stopped 30 of 31 shots, while Brodeur stopped 29 of 30.
Speaking of the Northeast, it's become a very interesting place to be this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs won their sixth in seven games with their 3-0 victory Monday over the hapless Florida Panthers. Meanwhile, Montreal was taking care of business against a much-improved Carolina Hurricanes team, defeating the Southeast Division leaders 3-0 for its fourth straight win. With starting goalie Carey Price feeling under the weather, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien went back to Peter Budaj for a second straight time (Budaj beat Philadelphia Saturday). The point totals are a bit misleading because Boston has played two or three fewer games than the rest of the division, but as of Tuesday morning, Montreal assumed the top spot in the Northeast, with Boston, Ottawa and Toronto all among the top eight in the Eastern Conference, as well.
The Anaheim Ducks are doing in the Pacific Division what the Chicago Blackhawks are doing in the Central: threatening to run away and hide. The surprising Ducks won again Monday, edging Columbus 3-2 to improve to 12-2-1. The win was the Ducks’ fifth straight, and their plus-14 goal differential is tied for second in the league behind the Blackhawks. The Ducks lead Phoenix by seven points with a game in hand, as the second-place Coyotes (8-6-2) continued to put their slow start to the season behind them with a 4-0 whitewashing of Calgary on Monday. The Coyotes have won four of five but are proving how hard it is to make up ground in the division. As for the Blackhawks (12-0-3), they have a shot at tying an NHL record for the best start without a regulation loss when Vancouver visits Tuesday night. The record for starting without a regulation loss was set by the 2006-07 Ducks, who went on to win the Cup after starting the season 12-0-4.
Craig Anderson is back and the Colorado Avalanche are still standing. In fact, they thrived during his three-week absence, which speaks volumes about a young team that showed its worth during what could have been a devastating injury to last season's team MVP.
"We responded well as a group with Craig not being there," Avs coach Joe Sacco told ESPN.com on Friday. "You don't want to single too many people out, but Peter Budaj obviously stepped into a situation and did a real good job for us. He was solid every game, gave us a chance to win, and really what else can you ask from your goaltender?"
Starting every game in Anderson's absence, Budaj went 6-3-1 and gave the Avs reliable goaltending and helped save what could have been a disastrous situation in the tough Western Conference.
"The reason why he was able to do that, to me, was his preparation," Sacco said of Budaj. "He's a guy that works extremely hard, all the time, in practice. He works hard off the ice. When the opportunity came, he was ready because of all the work he put into it. He filled in really nice and did a real good job for us."
Budaj also gave Sacco the confidence in knowing the coach can go back to him more often this season than he did in 2009-10. Budaj appeared in only 15 games last season as the red-hot Anderson put on a clinic in a Vezina-worthy season.
"I've said all along that we have two very capable goaltenders," said Sacco, who gave Anderson the start Friday night. "I know that last year Peter didn't play as much as he probably would have liked. That's just kind of how the situation worked out. It wasn't that I didn't have confidence in Peter, it was just that I thought Craig was playing so well that we were going to ride him. But going into this season, as a plan, I wanted to use Peter more, especially on back-to-back nights. I will use Peter more this year, there's no question. It will only benefit Craig to get some rest for the stretch."
While Budaj was key in helping Colorado survive in Anderson's absence, Sacco also credited the play of the rest of the team. We know this: the Avs can score goals by the bushel (they entered the weekend ranked fourth in the NHL in offense), which was a factor during the team's run without Anderson.
"We are a team that plays an aggressive, up-tempo style," said Sacco. "We've been fortunate to have scored a lot of goals and we get a lot of scoring opportunities. We talk about being a team that needs to be a little bit stingier defensively."
Like last season, defense remains an issue -- Colorado entered the weekend ranked 22nd in the league in goals against.
"But what I do is I look at our team now compared to where it was last year. Our shots against are down, our shots for are up and, in turn, our scoring chances against are down and our scoring chances for are up," said Sacco. "So those are all positive signs. We're certainly headed in the right direction."
The Avs were 29th in the league in shots for last season, but are way up to 11th entering the weekend. They're 21st in shots against compared to 25th last season. The killer right now is the penalty kill: 28th in the league entering the weekend.
"The goals against, it's been mostly because of our penalty killing. It's given up 18 goals," said Sacco. "So 5-on-5, we've been a real good team; the power play's been pretty good, but penalty killing needs to pick up."