Capitals

The story behind surprise playoff hero Craig Anderson

Capitals
Craig Anderson

As the playoffs approached, the question of who would start in net loomed over the Capitals more than any other. The discussion centered around young goalies Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek.

Rarely was Craig Anderson's name ever mentioned.

Anderson, who turns 40 on Friday, came to Washington on a professional tryout agreement only after the news that Henrik Lundqvist's heart condition would force him to miss the season. He served most of the season on the Caps' taxi squad. Now a player who looked like he may go through the offseason unsigned and who spent most of the season in the shadows behind the team's two young netminders has suddenly been thrust into the forefront as he looks to become a playoff savior for Washington.

Vanecek was injured less than 14 minutes into Game 1 and, with Samsonov unavailable, it was Anderson who had to answer the bell. He did just that, stepping into a playoff game after playing in just four games all season and made 21 saves in the win. In Game 2, he made 44 saves in an overtime loss and now looks poised to start Game 3.

“Well, you could say I’m well rested from not playing so much," Anderson said after Game 1. "I think it’s one of those things coming into the year, I knew the situation, I knew the role that I was asked to do. I think opportunity knocks, you make the most of your opportunity. I’ve been here before, so I can share my experiences with Vitek and Sammy and to now get the opportunity to live what I’ve been telling them, it’s a great feeling to kind of be involved and be a part of it."

 

Download and Subscribe to the Capitals Talk podcast

For those who know Anderson, however, the way he has played when called upon is no surprise at all.

"He's the ultimate competitor so not surprised to see him in goal," Brent Wallace told NBC Sports Washington in an interview that will air on Caps Pregame Live on Wednesday (coverage starts at 5:30 on NBC Sports Washington). Wallace covered the Ottawa Senators as a broadcaster for TSN and is now the co-host of The Wally and Methot Show podcast. 

"One thing I noticed right away when he came in, you see a lot of jitters sometimes when goalies get replaced and all of a sudden the backup is now in net. I could see Washington actually calmed a little bit because they knew here's a guy that's played in 45 playoff games at the time, he's got great numbers, he's an old veteran, he's been there before, he doesn't get rattled. You could see the team just kind of rally behind him and around him and you knew that there was going to be an easing, if you will, of him being in goal."

That easing feeling, however, does not come because Anderson's teammates know his Hockey Reference page. That comes from the player himself and his personality.

Anderson, it would seem, is a bit of a character.

"He loves to drive racecars," Wallace said. "He's a huge racecar officiando. All of his masks always have Corvettes painted onto the side of his mask."

He also, according to former teammate Marc Methot, builds computers.

"He's a very, very smart guy," Methot said. "He builds his own simulator, he's got this insane simulator in his basement and it's like a VR racetrack thing that he has with like three or four monitors and he's all about it. It's crazy."

To break up the monotony of practicing on the taxi squad, Anderson would pretend he was a different goalie and trying to play using that goalie's style through an entire practice.

"We play a little cat and mouse where you maybe [use] a little different styles just to mix it up that day," Anderson said. "Some days, I like to play full butterfly and pretend that I’m another guy in the league and other days I’ll play stand-up like it’s Grant Fuhr back in the day. So you just try to make light of it and keep it fun.”

 

While his methods may draw questions, Anderson has the resume to back it up.

Anderson ranks sixth all-time among American-born goalies in wins with 291. His NHL career has spanned 18 years and 652 games.

Anderson's success didn't come easy, however, and he was tested very early in his career.

"The one thing about Andy that people don't know a lot of is, early on in his career, if you go back and look at his statistics, I think he lost or didn't get a win in his first 13 NHL starts, he was placed on waivers I think twice, he knew he had to change," Wallace said. "There had to be some kind of reckoning with him. His attitude was off, he needed an attitude change. He got the adjustment and then he had to figure out if he was still ready or able to play in the NHL."

Anderson bounced around from Chicago to Florida to Colorado, but his career did not take off until he reached Ottawa, where he landed after a trade from Colorado in Feb. 2011.

"In Ottawa they didn't know what they were going to get with Craig Anderson," Wallace said. "When he came in, he became the greatest goaltender that Ottawa's ever had and in 10 years, he solidified that position."

Anderson's successful tenure with the Senators culminated with a deep playoff run in 2017 that saw Ottawa force the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to overtime in Game 7, falling just one single goal short of the final.

In that postseason, Anderson registered a .922 save percentage and 2.34 GAA.

"When he was in Ottawa, he was the guy," Wallace said. "You never doubted how the playoff performance was going to go. Did he have bad games? Absolutely, but not that many. He's got great numbers in the playoffs and he's proven it time and time again that he can win."

Anderson proved he could win in the toughest moments and that was especially true in 2016 when he faced the toughest challenge of his career and one that came off the ice.

In October 2016, Anderson's wife, Nicholle, was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare form of throat cancer. He left the team on Oct. 27 to be with his wife, but returned soon after at her urging.

"Nicole gets diagnosed, she's in Philadelphia, the game before the backup goalie gets hurt and Nicholle goes you go, you've got to play this game, they need you," Wallace said.

Playing in Edmonton on Oct. 30 against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Anderson made 37 saves in a shutout performance.

"He came into the room after and we were already in the room and Andy comes trailing in afterward and he broke down and was crying a little bit, very emotional," Methot said. "I still remember that feeling in the room, that satisfaction for him that he was able to have a successful game and play as well as he did despite all the news that was going down on his personal side. That was special. I can only imagine what that would have been like for him to play under those circumstances with all the stress with Nicole and cancer. It had to have been incredibly overwhelming for him, but, speaking to Andy's true nature, he got through it, he played incredible for us."

 

Nicholle announced in May 2017 that she is cancer-free.

After a career of always being able to step up when the pressure is at its greatest, whether it be in the playoffs or because of family matters off the ice, that has made it easy for the Caps to now place their trust in him.

"Andy's answered the bell really his whole career, but he's answered it for us when we needed him," 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."

Hockey does not always provide the fairytale ending that every story or person deserves and there is no telling just how long this story will last. At nearly 40 years old, we don't know how long Anderson will be expected to man the crease for Washington and the odds are against him lasting as the starter for a deep run. He may be just one bad game away from being relegated back down the depth chart.

But, regardless of how long he remains the starter, he has already made a memorable mark on Washington. It is better for having his leadership on the taxi squad, better for having a mentor for its younger netminders and better for having a third goalie who can still be relied upon to step in at a critical moment and lead the Caps to a playoff victory.

"This is a guy that played four games in 14 months or whatever it is," Wallace said. "He'll get fine, he'll get better, he'll get back in the net and I think he should be good for the rest of the series. I think he may end up being the catalyst if Washington gets by Boston."