At 35 years old, Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson is in the twilight of his career.
The NHL is full of rising stars in net. The position has changed so drastically in the last 10 to 20 years, a new generation of stars has emerged in a completely different likeness.
Young starters like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Matt Murray have brought an almost surgical precision to the game, and current elites like Braden Holtby and Carey Price often deliver textbook performances.
Anderson lacks that modern-era wow factor to his game. He’s technically adept but nothing world-changing. While he has adapted a bit to the new structure of the game, he still loves a good poke check and seems antsy when he’s left too long in a stationary position to set for a shot.
His numbers in the past have been good for stretches, excellent for spurts, and below average just often enough that he has never been one of the league’s hottest names.
While Anderson isn’t the goaltender the NHL thought would be this year’s playoff hero, that’s exactly what he has been.
The Senators haven’t done anything particularly earth-shattering during the postseason. As their roster composition and regular-season numbers suggest, they’re the definition of “good, not great,” with some variable star power thrown in to keep them competitive.
Since hitting the postseason, they’ve allowed shots from no father out than they did during the regular season; at even strength, Anderson is facing the puck from around 33 feet out.
They have just a slight edge on shot attempts over their opponents, sitting on a 52.3 Corsi For percentage, and they’re even closer to being even-keeled on scoring chances.
Despite that, the team has seen Anderson go 10-5 so far, losing just one overtime game and boasting a .923 save percentage in all situations.
For one of the playoff’s oldest talents, that’s an impressive metric.
Heading into Friday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Senators have done the unthinkable. They’re up 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final against one of the league’s rare threats to repeat in the wake of their 2016 Cup victory. In each of those games, Anderson allowed just one goal.
Game 1: 28 shots against, 27 saves. Anderson’s .964 save percentage through 64:59 of ice time was his best in almost three weeks.
Game 2: 29 shots, 28 saves. The only reason Anderson didn’t take home a win was the shutout posted by his opponent. His performance should have resulted in a victory.
Game 3: 26 shots, 25 saves. Another win, and an impressive ability to hold a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to a single goal in 60 minutes.
Of course, there’s an intangible element to how well Anderson has played that cannot be ignored, one that surpasses any nitpicking of his high-danger saves or wrap-around stops.
All season, his wife Nicholle has been battling cancer. He took a personal leave of absence to be with her during her treatments, juggling a high-stakes career and a personal battle that outsiders can’t possibly attempt to quantify.
Former NHL coach Corey Hirsch pointed out how quickly a dire personal situation can change a player’s perspective.
“He’s probably just enjoying every moment,” Hirsch pointed out.
“He’s seen real life pressure. The game of hockey, (in comparison), is just that. A game. He has the motivation of his wife … and it’s amazing how well you can play when you learn to enjoy every second.”
Something is driving him. He’s having one of his best seasons to date and systematically taking down the NHL’s powerhouse goalies series after series.
He defeated Tuukka Rask in a test of endurance; his teammates scored the goals, but his performances in a staggering four sudden-death overtimes were what prevented the losses and set the stage for the wins.
He then took on the league’s longest-standing elite force in net, Henrik Lundqvist. In a grueling six-game series, he held on against an uncharacteristically poor King to advance to yet another round.
Now, he’s facing down a tandem of excellence in Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray.
If the Senators fail to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, it won’t be entirely unexpected. They’ve defied the odds from the first series on, and they’re currently facing one of the league’s most powerful franchises in a desperate dance for the conference championship.
In Game 3, though, Fleury structurally collapsed. His game presented itself full of holes from the opening faceoff, and he found himself pulled after one period and four goals allowed. Despite that, the Penguins ultimately put on an increase in pressure in an attempt to even the score.
Anderson, behind a team that lost the edge in overall expected goals, held the Penguins to just one tally and took home the win.
He has been doing that all postseason.