Craig Anderson is glad he got a game under his belt, in retrospect.
Just last week, the 39-year-old goaltender made only his fourth appearance of the Capitals’ season when Washington faced the Philadelphia Flyers on the second night of a back-to-back.
Anderson didn’t know it at the time, but that outing turned out to be a tune-up for his first playoff action in four years. Anderson came off the bench cold more than midway through the first period in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Boston Bruins — replacing an injured Vitek Vanecek, who suffered a lower-body injury and did not return. Despite the circumstances, Anderson was efficient in stopping 21 of 22 shots on goal to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series.
All year, the Capitals have walked a tightrope when it comes to their goaltending situation. Long-time netminder Braden Holtby left in free agency and Washington rotated mostly between Vanecek, a rookie who spent five years in the minors, and Ilya Samsonov, the 2015 first-rounder who has failed to seize control of the starting job for a number of reasons.
But now, Washington’s title aspirations — at least in the short term — might just come down to Anderson — the team’s third-string netminder, or fourth-string given that he wasn’t signed until veteran Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined with a season-ending heart condition.
Coach Peter Laviolette opted not to reveal the severity of Vanecek’s injury, other than to say he is day to day, nor who will start Monday’s Game 2. Anderson, though, said he’s ready if needed.
“You could say I’m well rested from not playing so much,” Anderson said with a smile. “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.”
Anderson has spent most of the year on Washington’s taxi squad, a group of reserves traveling with the team in case there’s a need to call one of them up on short notice. The NHL installed the concept this season as a way to combat the pandemic. So on most days, Anderson’s only action on the ice consisted of 3-on-3 games between the taxi squad members or staying after practice to help teammates get extra shots on a goalie.
Anderson said he learned to make the most of his situations. Some days, he’d mimic other goaltending styles around the league, just to “make light of it and keep it fun.” Anderson, after all, could go weeks and months without taking the ice of an actual NHL game.
Saturday, in fact, marked the shortest amount of rest for Anderson this season. Just seven days passed between appearances, from May 8’s 2-1 win over Philadelphia to Saturday’s Game 1. Anderson said the Flyers game helped “jump-start the engine.”
There’s no guarantee, of course, that Anderson will be the main starter for Washington the rest of the postseason. Beyond Vanecek’s injury, there’s also the potential return of Samsonov, who has been out since early May due to coronavirus-related protocols.
Samsonov was removed from the league’s COVID-19 absence list hours before puck drop Saturday, but his status for the rest of the series is still to be determined. Samsonov participated in Sunday’s optional morning skate and Laviolette said the 25-year-old is “available,” but declined to indicate whether he’ll play. Pheonix Copley, Washington’s emergency goalie who became Anderson’s backup in Game 1, also took part in the morning skate.
Still, the Capitals echoed support for Anderson — expressing confidence in his ability to do the job. Anderson has started 46 postseason games. His strong performance in 2017 helped the Ottawa Senators knock out the Bruins from the playoffs in the first round. That year, the Senators came up one game short of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final behind Anderson’s .922 save percentage.
“It was great to see Andy come off the bench and play the way he did in a big game like this,” Laviolette said. “I don’t think anybody expected anything different.”
If Anderson starts Game 2, he would be the oldest goalie to start a playoff game since New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur in 2012. According to NHL, Anderson was the fourth-oldest goaltender in league history to win a playoff game in relief. He set a Capitals’ franchise record for the team’s oldest playoff goalie, as well.
Anderson turns 40 on Friday.
“It’s a great feeling to kind of be involved and be a part of it,” Anderson said.