Craig Anderson hasn’t publicly shared that his 18th NHL campaign will be his last, but the veteran of more than 650 career games is a realist — he turns 40 on Friday. He was a third-string goalie for much of the regular-season. His wife and two boys, ages 9 and 7, live in Florida.
“There’s more to life than just hockey,” Anderson recently told the Caps This Morning Podcast. “My family needs me too.”
“You never want to say never until everything is said and done, but to foreshadow a little bit, this potentially could be the final hurrah that I’m a part of.”
If this in fact the end of the road for Anderson’s NHL career, he may ultimately have a big say in just how long it lasts.
When the Washington Capitals host the Bruins in Game 2 of their First Round series on Monday, Anderson is expected to be their starter. The Capitals leaned heavily on Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov during the regular season, with the tandem combining to start all but two games.
“You’re talking about an experienced goaltender who has been there and done that,” coach Peter Laviolette said of Anderson. “He has excellent numbers in the regular season and the postseason, and when called upon with our organization, has answered the bell.”
Anderson impressed in relief in Game 1 stopping 21 of 22 shots in the Capitals 3-2 overtime win. Anderson replaced Vanecek, who left the game in the first period with a lower-body injury.
Vanecek is considered day-to-day, while Samsonov just returned to practice Sunday for the first time in nearly two weeks. Samsonov was unavailable while on the NHL’s COVID-19 list, and will likely need some more practice time before returning to game action, according to Laviolette.
That leaves the veteran-laden Capitals — a team with Stanley Cup aspirations — turning to a netminder, who spent much of the season as a practice goalie on the taxi squad.
Anderson made just two starts (and four appearances) all season.
“Well, you could say I’m well rested from not playing so much,” Anderson quipped after the series opener. “I think it’s one of those things coming the year, I knew the situation. I knew the role I was asked to do. I think opportunity knocks, you make the most of your opportunity.”
While Anderson hasn’t played much this season, he does have plenty of postseason experience. In 47 career playoff appearances, Anderson has a 24-22 record with a 2.32 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and four shutouts. In his most recent playoff run, Anderson led the Ottawa Senators to Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, before ultimately falling in double overtime.
Four years later, Anderson is back in the playoffs for the first time. Well aware that this could be his last run, the opportunity is being embraced.
“We’ve been preparing for it for all of our lives,” Anderson said. “You prepare from the time you’re six years old, pretending you’re in the Stanley Cup Final. This is it. We’re in the dance. What you make of the dance is up to your attitude and your mentality of being a guy that could be a difference maker.”
With retirement seemingly on the horizon, a supportive family that has already been through so much together and coming off a regular-season unlike any before in his pro career, Anderson has been thrust into these playoffs with something he could potentially use as a weapon: perspective.
There’s also a maturity and a veteran savviness with Anderson where the moment or the stage won’t be too big for him. Sure, there had to have been an adrenaline rush when his number got called, but there is also the emotional aspect that comes with an opportunity like this and the awareness that it could be his final shot.
“An emotional player during the playoffs is something you don’t want to run into,” he said. “That emotion that can turn the tide of an entire series. If you get a goalie or a hot scorer and all of a sudden emotion gets involved — the regular-season over 82 games, you can’t play at that emotional high, you’ll just burn yourself out — but when you get into those short segments of a best-of-seven series, and you run into an emotional player, look out.”
When asked recently why he signed with the Capitals to essentially serve as the backup to the backup after spending much of the last decade as an undisputed No. 1, Anderson spoke of how abruptly last season ended for Ottawa with the pandemic.
“That wasn’t the way I wanted to go out,” he said. “The best way for any athlete to go out is on his own terms, knowing that ‘Hey, I’ve done everything I possibly can and I’ve left it all there.’ I didn’t feel that yet. I still felt that I had something to give.”
Now, the opportunity is there once more for Anderson on the grand stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“He truly epitomizes the concept of working hard every day, so that when you get your opportunity you’re ready,” Laviolette said. “He’s had a great work ethic and a great demeanor the entire year in the roll that we had him in, and when called upon, he’s played really well for us.”