Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek, left, of the Czech Republic, checks Colorado Avalanche left winger Cody McLeod as he works the puck inside in the third period of the Avalanche\'s 4-1 victory in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/David Zalubowski)
DENVER - Feeling much better after a recent bout with swine flu, Peter Budaj made his long-awaited season debut.
Not that many were on hand to see it.
Playing in front of the smallest home crowd in Colorado Avalanche history, the backup goalie stopped 28 shots in a 4-1 victory over Phoenix on Wednesday night.
Milan Hejduk added two goals and Paul Stastny had three assists to help the Avalanche remain on top in the Western Conference standings and tie Pittsburgh for the overall NHL lead.
Despite their winning ways, the Avalanche only attracted 11,012 spectators Wednesday - all the empty seats quite noticeable.
A disappointment for a team that's been playing so well?
"Our job is to go out and play hockey, our job is to provide entertainment for our fans and to make sure the games are exciting," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "I think we've done a good job of that this year."
Budaj was brilliant in goal, allowing only Ed Jovanovski's power-play goal midway through the third period.
That despite not playing in a game since the exhibition season.
The 27-year-old Budaj was scheduled to make his first start Oct. 23 against Carolina, but was scratched due to flu-like symptoms. It turned out to be swine flu, causing Budaj to miss four games.
He was growing quite anxious to get out there.
Even with the layoff, there wasn't a hint of rust.
"I felt great and the communication was great," Budaj said. "After a couple of saves you relax, you know you've been there ... Get back to basics and not do anything crazy."
With Budaj fully healthy, Craig Anderson finally got a night off. Anderson made a franchise-record 15 straight starts to begin the season, breaking the mark that belonged to Mario Gosselin, who made nine straight starts to open the 1987-88 season.
Marek Svatos had a goal and David Jones added an empty-netter as Colorado improved to 5-0 at the Pepsi Center, one win away from tying its best home start since moving to the Mile High City.
"At times, we were a little slow but Budaj played unbelievable and kept us in," Stastny said. "He's the main reason we were up one goal going into the third."
The Coyotes certainly had their chances, but couldn't sneak anything past Budaj.
"It was a pretty lacklustre effort on our part for the better part of two periods," Jovanovski said.
Midway through the third period, the Coyotes picked it up, pulling within a goal. But they couldn't get the equalizer, despite a couple of quality shots by Matthew Lombardi.
"We've got to bury those chances," Lombardi said. "Couldn't make it happen."
Down a goal with just over a minute remaining, the Coyotes pulled goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, leading to Jones' breakaway.
Just 19 seconds later, Hejduk scored his second of the night.
Bryzgalov made 25 saves as the Coyotes dropped their second straight game. Bryzgalov has one of the top goals-against averages in the NHL, allowing less than two goals a game.
The Avalanche scored a power-play goal just 57 seconds into the game when Hejduk tipped in Kyle Quincey's slap shot from the blue line.
That set a solid tone, especially with Budaj playing at the top of his game.
As for any talk of a goalie controversy, Sacco quickly quelled it.
"I go on a game-by-game basis and right now Craig's done a good job for us," Sacco said.
NOTES: Avalanche F Darcy Tucker has started skating again and is listed as day-to-day. He has been out since he sustained a concussion on a check from Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu on Oct. 23. "His head feels fine after a couple of days of workouts," Sacco said. "I'm happy that his progress is probably farther ahead than I had anticipated. ... It will be nice to get him back." ... Jovanovski's power-play goal ended a string in which the Avalanche killed 25 straight penalties. ... The Coyotes are 5-3 on the road this season. Last year they didn't win their fifth road game until Dec. 10. ... Avs F Cody McLeod returned to the ice Wednesday after missing six games following an inadvertent stick to his left eye.