As Craig Anderson stepped onto the ice at Capital One Arena not even halfway through the first period, the Capitals’ worst nightmare seemed to be already underway.
The Boston Bruins had just tied the game and erased Washington's early lead. Vitek Vanecek, who had earned the starter’s net for Game 1 due to his body of work in the regular season, left injured after he allowed the tying goal.
With not much time to prepare, on came Anderson to take the net for a team that was already down Ilya Samsonov and, if you include him, Henrik Lundqvist, the veteran goalie who was supposed to be insurance for just this situation before heart surgery ended his season before it began.
And, somehow, the 39-year-old Anderson allowed just one goal (a power-play tally) on 22 shots as the Capitals earned a well-deserved 3-2 win over the Bruins in overtime to take Game 1. The Capitals lead the series 1-0 with Game 2 on Monday night.
“Tough spot, I think, to put somebody in, but Andy's answered the bell really his whole career, but he's answered it for us when we needed him,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “He truly epitomizes the concept of working hard every day so that when you get your opportunity you're ready and that's exactly what he did. He's had a great work ethic and a great demeanor the entire year in the role that we had him in and when called upon he's played really well for us.”
Anderson hadn’t played in a playoff game since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 when he was a member of the Ottawa Senators. He lost that crushing game to the Pittsburgh Penguins in double overtime, one goal away from playing for a championship. He hadn’t won a playoff game since May 23, 2017 (Game 6 of that same series vs. the Penguins) and had played just four games, with two starts, this season.
With the Capitals mostly relying on the tandem of Vanecek and Samsonov to get them through the season, Anderson found his spot in the press box more often than not. He didn’t even sign with the Capitals until 10 days after Lundqvist’s diagnosis which kept him out of the 2021 regular season.
Then Samsonov was put on the COVID-19 list two weeks ago, which opened the door for Anderson to seize the backup role. And after Vanecek’s injury early against the Bruins, he was thrust into a starting role once again. He was thankful for a rare appearance in net the previous Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Getting in that game at the end of the regular season, even though it had been a couple months, just to get that kind of get that game, I was able to stay a little fresh and kind of jump start the engine there, just kind of reinforce that you do need to be ready and you’re one shot, one play away from being the guy in the net,” Anderson said. “So that’s just trying to fight through the mental battle all year of practicing hard and showing up every day for the guys to make sure you’re ready to go.”
It wasn’t an easy year for Anderson. Most NHL teams don’t typically carry three goaltenders in a season. The last year, of course, has not been a typical season thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Anderson was on the taxi squad for a majority of the year and was in a clearly defined role as the team’s third-string goaltender, working hard but for a chance that might not ever come.
“The taxi work and the extra shots, it’s a mindset,” Anderson said. “When you’re playing every night, the extra shots kind of get to keep wearing on you. But with the proper mindset going in there, you know you’re going to go have fun playing 3-on-3 with the taxi guys and making a game of it. We play a little cat and mouse where you maybe a little different styles just to mix it up that day.”
Anderson said he kept things light by mixing up different goaltending styles with netminders of yesteryear. And he certainly kept things light on the Capitals on Saturday night, who managed just two goals in 60 minutes of hockey and needed some help from their defense and goaltender to force overtime. There, Nic Dowd deflected a shot and Washington earned likely its most impressive playoff win since hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2018.
“I think the biggest thing was just he is so calm and poised with what he did and he played so well and it has got to be really challenging for any player to come off the bench like that and be forced into that situation,” Dowd said. “Also being cold, I don’t know, there is a lot that goes into that, but I think our team has shown that we have done that all year and we’ve been able to be successful and guys have learned how to do it, to be honest.”
As for Anderson’s future in Washington's net, that remains unknown. And for Laviolette, that’s by design.
Laviolette was intentionally coy about his team's goaltending status and said he didn’t know the severity of Vanecek’s injury. Meaning, it’s likely there won’t be a hint about who will take the net in Game 2 until Monday's morning skate and there won’t be a definite answer until pregame warmups.
But Anderson, who turns 40 in five days and just completed (regular season and playoffs) his 699th career NHL game, said he’s more than ready for the opportunity if it’s his net. After all, he’s had plenty of time to prepare for it.
“Well,” Anderson began. “You could say I’m well rested from not playing so much.”