When Craig Anderson started on Sunday for the Capitals it had been 347 days since his last start. Between then he played a grand total of 22 minutes, 45 seconds which he did in relief of Vitek Vanecek on Feb. 7.
With the Caps on the second leg of a back-to-back and with head coach Peter Laviolette not ready to put Ilya Samsonov back in, Anderson got the nod on Sunday and he delivered.
Anderson made 23 saves on the 26 shots he faced against the New Jersey Devils, helping Washington to a 4-3 win. He is now the third goalie to record a win for the Caps just 17 games into the season.
Anderson is an NHL veteran with 649 games of experience under his belt plus an additional 46 playoff starts. But the 39-year-old netminder admitted to having some nerves prior to the game after such a long layoff.
"I'm not going to lie, I had some butterflies," Anderson said. "Definitely a little nervous before the game. It's been a little while [since] my last outing. So I definitely wanted to kinda get in there and feel the puck."
Anderson's task was made more difficult by the fact that he actually did not know he would be playing until Saturday night. In fact, he did not even know that starting was an option at all until after Saturday's game.
"I found out yesterday after the game that I was potentially playing," Anderson said. "It was confirmed last night. Was just kinda waiting. You prepare to play every game. You just don't know what can happen with sicknesses and with injuries and whatnot. So you have to prepare like you can play every game but when you get the call to start it's definitely, it's good to get it the night before, you can kinda sleep on it and go through it in your head and play the game before it even happens.
"I took the time last night to really focus on things I wanted to worry about today and that's just mental notes to tell myself to keep me in the game and stay focused."
And so, a Capitals team turned to a 39-year-old goalie who had gone almost a year between starts in an afternoon game with less time to prep, no morning skate and on the second leg of a back-to-back...and they won.
“I thought he played a really good game," Laviolette said. "I mean he gave us a chance to win, especially early on. The first 10 minutes we were a little slow out of the gate and then the next 50 minutes I thought we were pretty good but he made some big saves in there and he gave us a chance. He did a good job today."
Anderson was called upon early as Jack Hughes pulled a curl-and-drag move to get around defenseman Brenden Dillon and fired a shot from in close that Anderson was able to turn aside.
"Any time you can get in there and get a few shots early, it gets you into the game," Anderson said. "The first shot was a 2-on-1, toe drag through the slot. So made that save, gave me a boost of confidence a little bit and was just focusing on the next shot."
But Anderson really came up huge in the third period to protect the lead.
After a horrific start, the Caps managed to erase a 2-0 deficit and take the lead in the third period. Suddenly trailing, the Devils made a push in the third with 11 shots on goal. Anderson turned aside 10 to preserve the 4-3 win.
After the game, his teammates were happy with the win, but especially happy for Anderson.
"I think he's done a great job in practice in getting himself ready," T.J. Oshie said. "I'm sure it felt great for him to get out there, and you can tell by some of the saves he was making that he wanted to win. Very confident in him in the third once we got the lead to seal the door for us."
The win was a satisfying one for Anderson as it seemed that he might not actually get a chance to start at all. When Samsonov went on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related absence list on Jan. 19, Anderson was recalled from the taxi squad to back-up Vanecek.
After Laviolette continued to turn to Vanecek, however, it seemed as if the team looked at him as a mentor and an emergency backup rather than an actual starting option. That may have changed after Sunday's performance.
“Our goaltending rotation right now is and has been Vitek and Anderson," Laviolette said. "After today I can say both goalies have played well. They have given us a chance to win."