The Senators boarded a plane Thursday, minus their top centre, but with a handy new slogan: In Andy We Trust.
Quite simply, goaltender Craig Anderson has been playing out of his mind for the first two weeks of this truncated season, and it looks like he’ll have to keep it up. The news from general manager Bryan Murray on centre Jason Spezza was about as bad as it gets – Ottawa’s top forward could need six to eight weeks to recover from back surgery he will undergo on Friday for a herniated disc.
If the Senators are going to continue on their current track for a solid playoff position in the Eastern Conference, they will need the kind of goaltending Anderson has provided: Six starts, a 5-0-1 record, and the NHL’s best numbers — .967 save percentage and 0.99 goals-against average.
A testament to how high he has raised the bar: Anderson gave up just one goal against the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday and saw his goals against mark go UP.
Another crazy Anderson stat — he has not surrendered a goal in the second or third periods or in overtime of a game. He did take the shootout loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins last Sunday, when the elite trio of James Neal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin beat him in the breakaway event.
Otherwise, he has been giving up about one goal per game and nothing more. Some fans, perhaps slightly drunk on the fumes of Ottawa’s early success, are talking 2013 Vezina Trophy for Anderson.
Even Don Cherry of Hockey Night In Canada is tweeting about him: “Sens beat Habs 5-1. Anderson goaltender deluxe. Sensational again . . . Craig is looking like MVP.”
Again, it’s a bit early to be talking about Hart Trophy candidates. But Anderson deserves recognition for carrying his team in the early weeks of a 48-game season that demands a strong push out of the gate. How silly it seems now, the pre-season talk that he should sit out the season opener in Winnipeg because he hadn’t played during the lockout. Anderson and the Senators cruised to a 4-1 win that day and the team only really stumbled during Ben Bishop’s one start, a 6-4 loss in Tampa Bay.
Without Anderson, the Senators had no business beating the Washington Capitals Tuesday, and the Montreal game could have been different without an Anderson-Peter Budaj matchup in goal.
This will be the issue with the 31-year-old Anderson — how much rest does he need as the games start to pile up in this compressed schedule? For now, head coach Paul MacLean is going to ride the hot hand. Likewise, Anderson shrugs off talk of respite, saying he got lots of rest during the lockout, and is not worried about the workload.
One of the game’s most even-keeled goalies — Anderson’s picture should be next to the ‘not-too-high, not-too-low’ cliche in hockey’s worn phrases textbook. On the ice, he tends more to deadpan than flamboyant, so it was refreshing to see his giant smile, through the mask, when he robbed Brandon Prust, the first of two times on Wednesday.
Typically, after stopping 31 of 32 Canadiens shots, Anderson deflected praise.
“I think right now it’s just — I’m getting some bounces, getting really lucky on a few plays and guys are doing a terrific job up front blocking shots and cleaning up some of the garbage.”
Is this as locked in as Anderson has been in his career? He’s not sure. Having been part of four NHL organizations and with several AHL stints, Anderson knows a goalie’s path involves twists and turns.
“It comes and goes,” Anderson says of goaltending hot streaks. “There’s going to be games where you get the win, the stats look good but you don’t feel good out there. My job is just to go out there, give the team a chance to win and look forward.
“Whether it’s a good game or a bad game the night before, it’s a matter of looking forward and making sure you’re ready for the next game, because there’s no time to rest, no time to look back and reflect on a performance. You have to get back on the horse and start riding again.”
This is classic Andy-speak. You win, or lose, and move on.
When Anderson (33 wins, 2.83 goals-against) carried the Senators into a surprising playoff berth last season, it was the second time he’d been the stable rock for a young team thinking big. In 2009-10 with the Colorado Avalanche, Anderson had a career year, winning 38 games to backstop the Avs to second place in the Northwest Division.
The Avalanche couldn’t come to terms with Anderson on a new contract, however, and so Murray acquired him in a deal for Brian Elliott in February of 2011, part of Ottawa’s quick rebuilding program. Anderson was 11-5-1 down the stretch, ironically hurting the club’s draft position, but impressing the organization enough to earn a new four year deal in the spring of 2011.
His teammates have equal faith in Anderson.
“Since Andy came in last year, he has really gelled with the team,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson. “He’s just one of those goalies who keeps his emotions in check. Doesn’t get too high or too low. Obviously, he’s got confidence. I’m surprised because we haven’t played hockey in so long, but he seems to make it look so simple.”
As simple and smooth as closing a door.