Sometimes a big sporting moment can be best recalled in a single image.
It could be giant Zdeno Chara, mouth agape, with Lord Stanley’s chalice in his mighty hands. Or, a defeated team sitting on the ice, players backs to the boards, heads slumped so low that faces can’t be seen.
From my view, the lasting image from the Senators’ late season turnaround — the seeds for all the hope that has since enveloped the franchise — was the sight of Craig Anderson at the Ottawa bench, firing up the troops for a shootout.
The date was Feb. 19, and Anderson had been a Senator for all of 24 hours.
By this time, Senators fans had come to accept two truths about their team. 1. The shootout was Ottawa’s to lose, and it usually did. 2. Brian Elliott, Anderson’s predecessor, would not have been at the bench urging his mates except at the point of a gun. Just wasn’t his style. Big man, Elliott, small personality.
Today, Elliott has a new life racking up wins for the St. Louis Blues, so good on him. But what the Senators needed then, as now, was a goaltender with a presence, with chutzpah.
Anderson has it in spades. His gestures that night at the visitors’ bench of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, his first taste of the Battle of Ontario, spoke volumes. Get me a goal or two, his body language suggested, I’ll make some saves and we’ll get out of here with two points.
Minutes later, the Senators fired up a 1-0 victory on a Jason Spezza wrist shot — Anderson was perfect while delivering the Senators first shootout victory of the season. All he did the rest of the way was complete an 11-5-1 record with a 2.05 goals against and .939 save percentage, earning himself and general manager Bryan Murray new contracts.
Two months into the new season, not much has changed, other than the reality of trying to grind out wins with a rebuilding club. Anderson is still a presence, standing tall, talking straight. Still winning shootouts.
While the numbers aren’t quite as sparkling, owing mainly to a couple of early season blowouts, Anderson’s 9-6-1 record, with a 3.25 goals-against average and .895 save percentage is more than respectable.
In his past three games, road victories in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto, Anderson is 3-0, with a .947 save percentage and 1.66 goals-against. He has been the stopper his club needs him to be.
“There’s always going to be mistakes in hockey, that’s just the game that we play,” Anderson says. “Being a younger team, maybe the mistakes are a little more pronounced, but for the most part we’ve done a great job of minimizing the mistakes that we’ve had, finding ways to win, doing the little extra to help each other out.”
A stiff neck kept Anderson out of Sunday’s game in Vancouver, a 2-1 overtime loss to the Canucks, to complete a western swing. Blame the travel, blame hotel pillows, Anderson isn’t sure what caused him to wake up Sunday unable to turn his head fully. So he turned the task over to former Canucks goaltender Alex Auld, who played well.
Anderson’s neck is fine, thank you, he practised on Tuesday at the Sensplex and will be expected to start Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins and a guy named Crosby. If Ottawa is to have any chance against Sidney and friends, Anderson will almost certainly have to step up when coverage breaks down. On most nights, he has done that. It’s practically the recipe for a team with five rookies and seven players that haven’t played a full NHL season.
“It’s a team game for a reason,” Anderson says, standing in the Senators dressing room after practice. “There’s going to be nights where your top line isn’t going. That’s just the way this game is. There’s going to be nights when you get help from everyone and there’s going be nights when one guy is going to come in and steal the show, so it’s a collective effort from everyone. Everyone needs each other to have success.”
This isn’t Anderson’s first rodeo with a young group looking to surprise the league. Two years ago he won 38 games for an Avalanche team that wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs, but did. And yes, he sees similarities between that bunch and this one.
“A lot of teams are younger now, with the way the league is going,” Anderson says. “Young guys have to be your best players. When we were in Colorado, our young guys, they were the bread and butter of our team and the veteran guys just kind of kept them in line and put them on track.
“Look at the teams that have won the Stanley Cup the last couple of years. Most of their star players are under the age of 25. It’s definitely a young league. The quicker they learn, the better your team is going to be.”
Young teams need veterans leading the way, and Ottawa has a bunch, Anderson included. No one, he says, sets a better example than captain Daniel Alfredsson.
“Alfie might be our hardest working guy, and yet the most talented,” Anderson says. “That goes a long way.”