It all unfolded in a matter of seconds for Craig Anderson.
Starting with a face-off, Jake DeBrusk took a shot on net that caught Vitek Vanecek off guard. The young Washington Capitals netminder went into the splits and injured himself on a play that resulted in a game-tying goal for the Boston Bruins and threw Anderson into the crosshairs of playoff hockey for the first time in nearly four years.
“You do need to be ready. You’re one shot, one play away from being the guy in the net,” Anderson explained. “I’ve been trying to fight through the mental battle all year of practicing hard and showing up every day for the guys to make you’re ready to go.”
The 39-year-old played in just four games for Washington over the course of the regular season, making his last start on May 8. Despite the lack of games, he was far from cold, making 21 saves on 22 shots (.955 SV%) to lead the Caps to a 3-2 OT win over Boston in Game 1 and 1-0 series lead.
“Opportunity knocks, you make the most of your opportunity,” Anderson said, adding, “It’s a great feeling, to be involved and be a part of it... the guys are looking to each other to bond together and pull on this rope and I’m right there with those guys and doing everything I possibly can to do my share.”
Anderson knew what his role would be in D.C. when he signed his PTO and eventual one-year deal with the team over the 2020 offseason. The veteran, who’s played 18 years at the NHL level and boasts a .913 save percentage over 652 career games, would mainly be on the team’s taxi squad and the No. 3 option behind the team’s young tandem in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.
At practices, he said he’d try to change things up and have some fun, playing 3-on-3 hockey, “cat and mouse,” and emulating the likes of Grant Fuhr and switching between stand-up and butterfly styles. He also got four regular season games under his belt, where he registered a 2-1-0 record with a .915 save percentage and 2.13 GAA.
“Andy’s answered the bell his whole career, but he’s answered it for us when we needed him,” Laviolette said, adding, “He’s had a great work ethic and great demeanor all year in the role we’ve had him in, and when called upon, he’s played really well for us.”
“I don’t think anybody expected anything different [when he came in]... Everybody was pretty confident based on his career and the amount of starts he’s had in his career and his numbers have been good his entire life in the National Hockey League. He came off the bench and did what he always does.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin agreed, praising Anderson and the team’s “next-man up” mentality that’s been a constant theme in the dressing room amid COVID-19, lower-body injuries and more.
“Right now in this time of year, it doesn’t matter what happen... we have to find a way and I think everybody understand it time for us to step it up,” Alex Ovechkin said. “You can see Andy come out and play solid game, he makes big saves and gives us chance to win.”
The Capitals goaltending situation has been something of an enigma of late, with Samsonov being out due to disciplinary reasons and COVID-19 protocols along with Evgeny Kuznetsov. And with Vanecek hurt — and no indicators on the severity of the injury — Anderson may have to be the go-to guy going forward, and he welcomes the challenge.
“I try to stay in the moment as best as I can... at the end of the day, we are here in this moment and this is what we play for. It’s a great opportunity, it’s the work we’ve done that allows us to have success now,” Anderson said.