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Once an Afterthought, Craig Anderson is Keeping the Capitals’ Playoff Hopes Alive

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Pressed into emergency action for the Capitals in the playoffs, veteran goalie Craig Anderson is putting on a performance few could have expected.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals turned to a goaltender with no prior postseason experience as they looked to save their season. Starting in place of veteran Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov came up strong in Game 2 and took the job.

This year, the Capitals have also used one playoff debutant and one league veteran in the crease. In 2021, the move has come out of necessity as Vitek Vanecek, who guided Washington through the bulk of the regular season, went down with an injury after only 13 minutes of postseason play.

Now it’s Craig Anderson, a late fill-in to the depth chart to start the year, who is keeping the Capitals afloat in their first-round series against the Boston Bruins. The series is split 1-1 after two tough overtime games.

After playing in just four games during the regular season, Anderson has now backstopped two in three days. And while his first appearance of the postseason was relatively light, facing 22 shots, Anderson was bombarded with 48 shots on net in Game 2, a 4-3 loss.

“I thought Andy played great,” Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway said of Anderson’s performance on Monday.

Prior to his injury, Vanecek had put together a strong rookie season, pushed into the starter’s role unexpectedly and finishing the season with a 21-10-4 record, .908 save percentage, and two shutouts. With his main competition for the starting role, Ilya Samsonov, out of commission on the NHL’s COVID protocol list to start the series, it seemed like the net would be Vanecek’s for the length of the Caps’ postseason run.

Samsonov recently became eligible to return; suddenly, however, the starting job appears to be Anderson’s to lose regardless of Samsonov’s fitness.

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy felt his players did not do enough to pressure Anderson in the series-opener, especially coming in mid-game after minimal regular-season action, and the team sought to change that the next time out.

“Craig hasn’t played a lot of hockey for them,” Cassidy said after the Bruins’ defeat in Game 1. “You do want to sort of take advantage of that.”

In Game 2, the Bruins did.

“There was a lot of pucks flying at the net,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. “They’re a good offensive team.”

Despite being consistently hounded by Boston’s high-end scoring talent, Anderson, who turns 40 this week, was able to turn aside most of Boston’s constant barrage. Aside from an adventurous mishap in the first period that led to a tally into a wide-open net, Anderson was only dented by slick shots off turnovers and a chaotic scramble in the crease.

“He’s played a lot of playoff games and he has pretty good numbers in the playoffs,” Laviolette added Tuesday. “He gave us an opportunity to win a game last night. He made big saves.”

Boston Bruins v Washington Capitals - Game Two Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Unfortunately even Anderson’s strong performance couldn’t overcome some costly mistakes and a sputtering offense in front of him last night. Taylor Hall evened up the game with just minutes left in regulation on a net-front scramble, and just 39 seconds into overtime, Brad Marchand capitalized on a failed clearing attempt to win the game for Boston. In the end, Anderson simply could not withstand the siege, (which you can read more about here), with the Bruins accumulating 15 shots on goal and 31 shot attempts in the final 20 minutes and 39 seconds. Boston had an eye-watering 70 five-on-five shot attempts for the game.

It was Anderson’s 11th career playoff game with 40 or more stops, the most among active NHL goalies, in his sixth postseason after making his NHL debut in 2002.

“They generated more last night, but yet he still continued to make saves and give us a chance,” Laviolette said Tuesday. “That experience from previous years and a long NHL career being a real good goaltender was evident in a game like last night.”

Vanecek’s ailment does not appear to be a minor one, though Capitals have termed it a “day-to-day” issue and Laviolette has not divulged how severe the injury is. Samsonov was placed on the NHL’s COVID-protocol list for the second time this season on May 4. The young Russian has not played since May 1, a 3-0 loss, and skated for the first time in almost two weeks on Sunday.

Anderson could not secure a job in the offseason with his longtime team, the lowly Ottawa Senators. He was content with a taxi squad job that allowed him to remain in the league. But on the league’s biggest stage, Anderson is no longer an afterthought.

“I thought their guy was excellent,” Cassidy said.