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Reign’s Budaj piling up AHL awards for net excellence

 

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In his 14-year professional career, goaltender Peter Budaj had never experienced such an overwhelmingly successful season as that in 2015-16 for the Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate.

Budaj, 33, a native of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, started 60 of the Reign’s 68 games, posted a 1.75 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and nine shutouts – all bests in the 30-team league.

Budaj led the AHL in minutes played (3,574) and posted a record of 42-14-4. The 42 wins are the most registered in the league by a goaltender in the last 55 years.

Behind his play, Ontario finished with the best record in both the newly stitched-together Pacific Division and Western Conference. The Reign’s 44-19-4-1 regular-season record ranked second in the league only to that of the Toronto Marlies (54-16-5-1).

Not surprisingly, Budaj has reaped a mountain of awards presented by the AHL, and quite deservedly so.

On April 7, he was among a group of just six players in the league who were named as 2015-16 First Team AHL All-Stars.

Four days later, on April 11, he was the recipient of two more honors: CCM/AHL Player of the Week and the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s Outstanding Goaltender.

Budaj received the weekly award for helping the Reign secure its first regular season Pacific Division championship. In winning three games that week, he became only the second goaltender in the last 50 years to win 40 games in a single season.

After named the AHL’s outstanding goaltender, Budaj was presented with the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for the 2015-16 season. The latter award is presented to the goaltender(s) with at least 25 games played on the team that allows the fewest goals per game in the regular season.

The Reign allowed an average of 2.03 goals per game in 2015-16. Budaj was the bulwark of that.

He remained surprisingly modest about the awards, calling them collectively an “honor.”

“I never won anything like that,” Budaj explained in advance of Ontario’s Pacific Division semifinal playoff series against the fourth-seeded San Jose Barracuda. “I’m very thankful. I’m very happy I was able to be healthy and the coaching staff trusted me, and I was able to play well.

“But it’s not only me. It’s a reflection on the whole team — where we stand when you look at the standings. The boys played really hard for me. They blocked shots. They did all the little things right. We win as a team. This gives us a chance to be at the top of the conference right now. Definitely, it’s a reflection on the team. I feel good. I’m playing well right now, but it’s the whole team and the whole organization. I’m very thankful to them, to my family, my wife, my kids, and my parents, everybody.”

A former second-round pick (63rd overall) of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2001 NHL Draft, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound netminder played six seasons in the NHL with the Avalanche (2005-11) and three more with the Montreal Canadiens (2011-14) before returning to the AHL.

In 2011, Budaj became the first Slovakian goaltender to reach 100 career NHL wins.

He has made 24 international appearances for his country since 2000, including two Olympic Games.

Budaj has appeared in 297 career NHL games with Colorado, Montreal and the Kings, posting a record of 125-107-36, with a .903 save percentage and 2.76 GAA.

He played in one game this season for the Kings on an emergency call-up on Feb. 12 when he back-stopped L.A. to a 5-4 overtime win over the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden by making 24 saves on 28 shots.

The Kings, obviously impressed by his numbers this season, gave the Ontario goaltender a one-year extension on his contract in March. Budaj is especially appreciative of the contract extension.

“I’m very thankful,” Budaj expressed. “Coming into this year, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a contract. I was coming to camp for a tryout. But everything fell into place and thank God we have another contract next year.”

For Budaj, it’s been a turnaround season, and an especially sweet one at that.

While Ontario (as the Manchester Monarchs) was busy winning last year’s Calder Cup championship, Budaj was experiencing a rather non-stellar season with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. In 19 games, he posted a 3.55 GAA, .888 save percentage and 0-9-6 record.

That’s right, no wins.

In October 2014, the Canadiens had traded Budaj to the Winnipeg Jets. He was subsequently assigned to the Jets’ AHL affiliate in St. John’s. After the rather unimpressive stint with the IceCaps, Budaj became a free agent.

In August 2015, he signed a try-out contract to attend the Kings’ training camp and on Oct. 9 signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Kings and was assigned to the Reign.

It’s been a rocket ship ride since then.

Budaj said his success this season has been the ability to focus on one shot at a time.

“I just try to not look too far ahead,” he said. “I try to stay in the moment, work hard and get ready for the next puck. I don’t think about what’s going to happen after the game, what happened before the game or if we are in the lead or if we’re losing the game. I just try to focus on the next puck, try to work hard and try to help the team win a game. Consistency is something that every player can get the most out of.”

As for the blockbuster season the Reign has turned in, just how do they compare to NHL teams?

Budaj said it’s difficult to compare teams in the NHL and AHL because the focus in the AHL is on developing talent.

“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s a different game. You can’t really compare. The NHL is definitely a step ahead. It doesn’t matter where you stand in the NHL. The NHL is the NHL. The quality of the players is better there. There’s nothing against the guys down here or the teams down here.

“That’s why there’s the American Hockey League – to prepare you for the next step up to the NHL, and that’s why you hone your skills, get the system down, get all the little things down right and learn the game so you can go a step higher because the NHL is that much faster, that more accurate and that much more harder to play in.”

Fantastic four

The Pacific Division playoffs are now set, but it took until the league’s final game of the 2015-16 season (its 1,200th and final regular-season game) before the first-round match-ups were determined.

While Ontario, San Diego and Texas had each wrapped up playoff berths with a week or more remaining in the regular season, the final berth in the Pacific Division semifinals came down either the San Jose Barracuda or the Charlotte Checkers depending on the outcome of the Barracuda’s final home game against the Stockton Heat on April 17.

Charlotte had appeared in control of its playoff destiny until dropping its final five games of the regular season. That opened the door for San Jose, which needed only one point in its final two games to qualify. But the Barracuda was experiencing some tough times as well. The teams were separated by just .004 percentage points with one regular season game remaining. If San Jose won its regular-season finale, it would advance as the fourth seed in the division; if it lost, the Checkers would slip through the back door into the playoffs.

The Barracuda, cheered on by 7,664 fans at the SAP Center, posted a 6-0 shutout on the Heat, which had already been eliminated from playoff contention, to earn the division’s final playoff berth.

San Jose finished with a 31-26-8-3 regular season record and a 0.537 points-percentage; the Checkers finished with a 36-32-3-5 regular season record and a 0.526 points-percentage.

Three of the division’s five California teams qualified for post-season play.

San Diego finished in second place in the division standings with a 39-23-4-2 regular season record and 0.618 points-percentage to earn the No. 2 seed in the division semifinals while the Texas Stars finished with the third-best points-percentage (.599) in the division to earn the No. 3 semifinal seed.

The Stars will host the opening two games in its division semifinal series against the Gulls on April 21 and April 23 before the series shifts to San Diego for the remainder of the best-of-five series (April 28, April 29 and May 2).

Ontario will face off its division semifinal with two games in San Jose on April 22 and April 23 before the best-of-five series shifts to the Reign’s home ice (April 28, April 29 and May 1).

Right wing Sean Backman was among the Ontario players who won the Calder Cup championship last year in Manchester. He tallied 44 points in 76 regular season games for the Monarchs in 2014-15 before tacking on 17 points in 19 playoff games.

This season for the Reign, Backman tallied 55 points in 68 regular season games to lead Ontario in scoring. He said the team, with three consecutive division titles to its credit, is motivated to repeat as AHL champions.

“As we get close to the playoffs, we’re right where we want to be at the top of the conference,” Backman explained. “We have a similar make-up from the team last year. I think we took that winning formula into this year.

“A lot of hard work, a lot of skating. We’re a skating team; we like to out-skate our opponent. Whenever we can out-work our opponent, that’s what we want to do. Any time we go out there, we want to win games. We want to be the last team playing in June.”

Almost famous

The Pacific Division proved to be very competitive this season. Six of the seven teams in the division finished with 0.500 or better records and the last place team finished just two games under .500.

The Bakersfield Condors (31-28-7-2) finished in fifth place in the Pacific Division standings while Stockton (32-32-2-2) finished in sixth place. Bakersfield finished two points behind San Jose in the division standings while the Heat finished three points behind the Condors.

The San Antonio Rampage (33-35-8-0) finished seventh in the division standings. However, the Rampage’s record was better than five teams in other divisions in the AHL.

Stars in their eyes

San Diego defenseman Brandon Montour joined Budaj as a 2015-16 First Team AHL All-Star. Montour received further honors as a member of the league’s all-rookie team along with San Antonio forward Mikko Rantanen.

Rantanen, a Second Team AHL-All-Star in 2015-16, shared the AHL’s outstanding rookie award with Providence’s Frank Vatrano, who racked up a league-leading 36 goals in 36 games.

Rantanen, 19, finished as the Pacific Division’s top scorer with 24 goals and 36 assists for 60 points in 52 games. The native of Finland finished second among the leagues’ rookies in total points.

Rantanen, who finished ninth overall in AHL scoring, appeared in nine games this season for Colorado, San Antonio’s NHL affiliate, and was the second-youngest participant in the AHL All-Star Classic in its modern format.

Chris Bourque of the Hershey Bears finished as the AHL’s top point-scorer with 80 points (30 goals, 50 assists) in 72 games to earn league MVP honors in 2015-16.

Top shelf

Kenny Agostino led Stockton with 23 goals and 34 assists for 57 total points to tie Montour (12 goals, 45 assists) and Gulls teammate Chris Mueller (20 goals, 37 assists) for top scoring honors among players on the league’s five California teams.

Twenty-seven proved to be the magic number for a trio of players who finished at the top of the Pacific Division in goals scored. Stockton’s Derek Grant tallied 27 goals in 36 games, while Heat teammate Hunter Shinkaruk potted 27 goals in 62 games and Bakersfield’s Matt Ford scored 27 goals in 64 games.

The 27 goals are a single-season career high for Ford, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. The West Hills native finished the season with 51 points – just two points shy of his career best 53 points set last season with the Oklahoma City Barons (the precursor franchise to the Condors).

Making the save

San Jose’s Aaron Dell (17-16-6) was next in line after Budaj among Pacific Division goaltenders with a 2.42 GAA and .922 save percentage. He stopped 41 shots to record his fourth shutout of the season en route to leading the Barracuda into the playoffs in the regular season finale against the Heat.

Not far behind Dell was San Diego netminder Anton Khudobin (19-8-3) with a 2.46 GAA and .921 save percentage.

Eighteen-year-old Nick Schneider appeared in nine games to close out the season with Stockton. He recorded a 4-5 record with a 3.92 GAA and 0.876 save percentage. He picked up his first win as a pro by outdueling Budaj and division-leading Ontario by stopping 31 of 33 shots in a 3-2 victory on April 1.

What’s trending

Ontario finished 9-3-0 against San Jose in the teams’ 12 regular season meetings. The Reign is 22-8-3-1 at home, 22-11-1-0 on the road and 6-4 in its last 10 games.

Backman paced the Reign in points (55), while Michael Mersch led the team in goals scored (24). Backman and Nic Dowd are tied for the team lead with 34 assists, while Kurtis MacDermid leads the team with 121 penalty minutes.

Backman also leads Ontario with eight power-play goals, 19 power play points and eight game-winning goals (tied for first in the league). Defenseman Vincent Lo Verde led all AHL blue-liners with four game-winning goals.

San Jose, led by Roy Sommer, the all-time winningest coach in the AHL’s 80-year history, is 4-5-1 in its last 10 games and finished 3-6-3 against Ontario during regular season play. All three wins against the Reign came at the SAP Center.

Ryan Carpenter earned MVP and Unsung Hero honors in the 2015-16 Barracuda Player awards and Nikolay Goldobin was the recipient of the team’s Rookie of the Year award.

Carpenter tallied 55 points (18 goals, 37 assists) in 66 games, followed by Bryan Lerg with 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 64 games, John McCarthy with 45 points (16 goals, 29 points) in 67 games, Goldobin with 44 points (21 goals, 23 assists) in 60 games, Trevor Parkes with 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists) in 68 games and Barclay Goodrow with 39 points (20 goals, 19 assists) in 57 games.

McCarthy ended the regular season on a six-game point streak.

Until San Diego scored two goals in 29 seconds to upend Ontario, 3-2, in the teams’ regular season finale on April 16, the Reign had not surrendered a lead in the third period all season. Ontario is now 30-1 when leading after two periods.

The Gulls have compiled several impressive streaks this season. The team is 31-0 when leading after two periods, is 18-2-0-1 when leading after the first period and has lost only once in regulation play after scoring the first goal in a game (28-1-2-1).

The Gulls are also 20-1-4-2 in one-goal games and 13-3-1-1 over their last 18 road contests. The Gulls have won 20 of their last 29 games and have picked up points in 21 of their last 23 games (16-3-3-1).

Now for the stat that hurts: Despite finishing above the Stars in the division standings, San Diego dropped five of six regular season meetings against the Texas team.

Mueller and teammate Nick Ritchie tied for the league lead with eight power play goals. Mike Sgarbossa ranks third on the Gulls with 44 points (17 goals, 27 assists), followed by Corey Tropp with 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists). Mueller leads the team with 20 goals and Sgarbossa is next with 17.

Defenseman Shea Theodore, who collected 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists) in 50 games with San Diego, received a call-up to the Anaheim Ducks (the Gulls’ parent club) for the start of the NHL playoffs.

The Stars finished with one of the league’s most ferocious offenses by scoring 277 goals in 76 games. Four Texas players finished with 20 or more goals, six with 30 or more assists and nine with 40 or more points. AHL All-Star Classic selection Brendan Ranford (19 goals, 40 assists) leads the Stars in scoring with 59 points.

Texas, which is averaging 3.64 goals per game, enters the playoffs on a 2-0-1 streak and is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games.

San Diego, which is averaging 3.06 goals per game, is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games. The Gulls appear to have an advantage on defense by allowing 2.94 goals per game as opposed to 3.27 goals per game for Texas.

The playoff series will pit brothers Nick Ritchie (San Diego) and Brett Ritchie (Texas) against one another. Both siblings have had NHL call-ups this season. Nick Ritchie has collected 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 38 games with the Gulls, while Brett Ritchie has recorded 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in 35 games.

By the numbers

San Diego and Ontario finished second and fourth, respectively, in AHL home attendance in 2015-16. The Gulls, playing in their first season in San Diego, averaged 8,675 fans while the Reign, making the switch from the ECHL to the AHL, averaged 8,570 fans in 34 home dates.

Hershey led the league with a 9,790 attendance-average – the 10th consecutive season it has done so — while Lake Eerie ranked third with an 8,596 attendance average. Overall, the AHL averaged 5,982 fans – its highest ever in its 80-year history. A total of 6.7 million fans attended AHL games this season.

Attendance was up 8.6 percent league-wide, with nine teams posting attendance averages of more than 7,200 per game.

The AHL’s move west proved advantageous. The five California franchises combined for a 6,304 attendance-average (five percent higher than the league average). Bakersfield averaged 5,195 fans per game, while Stockton averaged 4,647 fans and San Jose averaged 4,432 fans per game.

The Gulls attracted crows of 11,264 and 11,705 to their final two home games against archrival Ontario.

Stockton attracted 8,041 fans to its regular season home game, while Bakersfield drew 6,204 fans to its regular-season home finale.

Ontario hosted 9,389 fans to his final regular season home game.

Story & Photo/Phillip Brents