The long and icy road
Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson navigated waivers, minors before finding a home
OTTAWA, Ontario -- I can recall my first conversation with netminder Craig Anderson. It was during the 2010-11 regular season in Denver. Anderson had just returned from injury and was not playing well. In spite of a strong season the previous year, when he almost single-handedly willed the Colorado Avalanche to a surprise playoff berth, he had not been offered a contract extension.
At the time, it looked like Anderson was about to punch yet another ticket on his meandering career path.
For a man who had repeatedly been placed on waivers and sent to the minors, easy to disregard and easy to ignore, Anderson's prospects looked grim.
And so it is a little difficult to reconcile that man with the one who stood easily outside the Ottawa Senators' dressing room, fielding reporters' questions late Monday morning, about 12 hours after turning in an often-spectacular 49-save performance in Game 3's double-overtime thriller of the Senators' second-round series against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Today's a day of recovery. Just mentally clear your head and maybe enjoy your time with your family and come back ready to work tomorrow," said Anderson, who will turn 32 on Tuesday. "We played a long game last night, and there's definitely some tired bodies in there, but for the most part good day to recharge today and look forward to Game 4."
One of the oft-repeated lines during a playoff series is that teams and players cannot afford to get too high when the hockey gods smile upon them -- something to keep in mind if you're the Senators, who gained a crucial 2-1 win in Game 3 thanks to Colin Greening's goal in the second overtime period. Nor can players become too low when they endure a bad bounce or simply aren't as good as the opposing team on a given night.
That Anderson can talk about managing those conflicting sets of emotions somehow means a little bit more given that his career has been a nonstop festival of highs and lows -- with the emphasis on the low part.
That June, Chicago traded Anderson to the Florida Panthers. Three years later, he signed with the Avalanche as a free agent. By the 2011 trade deadline, he was on the move again, headed to Ottawa for Brian Elliott in what was essentially a swap of two unhappy goaltenders with little in the way of prospects in either of their respective cities.
"I think the defining moment in my career was when I went through waivers three times," Anderson said. "It kind of changed my outlook on things. Then the next year I went back to the minors. You can't get any lower than that, having teams tell you they don't want you, and then another team picks you up and they tell you they don't want you ... then you get traded. It's a tough road, it's a bumpy road.
"It's not what happens to you, it's how you react. I was able to mature quite a bit and figure out that I had to change my ways a little bit to get back to the league and find a way to be successful."
Florida GM Dale Tallon was with the Blackhawks when they drafted Anderson. While it never worked out in Chicago, Tallon told ESPN.com he's not surprised that Anderson is having success at the highest level.
"He was always athletically a very good goaltender," he said. But, Tallon added, he lacked control in the net and it cost him in terms of positioning.
"Now he's more in tune with his positioning," Tallon said. "I give him a ton of credit for being persistent and getting there."
Former NHL netminder Kevin Weekes, now a television analyst, said he thought Anderson's game turned a corner technically while he was in Florida. And Anderson seems to have mellowed a little over time.
"I really think his personality has relaxed over the years," Weeks told ESPN.com on Monday, "and I really think that has served him well in a hockey-mad market like Ottawa."
A native of the Chicago area, Anderson was on his way to a Vezina Trophy-worthy regular season when he suffered an ankle sprain. And while there were some hiccups along the way after he returned late in the regular season, Anderson has been able to return to form as the seventh-seeded Senators knocked off the Northeast Division champion Montreal Canadiens in five games in the first round.
He has a .940 save percentage thus far in the postseason, and now has the Senators in position to tie their semifinal series with the top-seeded Penguins with a win Wednesday.
"He made huge stops. He was probably their best player on the ice," Pittsburgh winger Chris Kunitz said Monday. "But we knew that going in, that he was capable of having those games. Just because we got some by him in the first two games doesn't mean that's going to happen every night."
Regardless of whether the Sens have won or lost, or whether Anderson himself has played well or not -- he was in fact pulled early in the second period of Game 2 in Pittsburgh -- Anderson has been able to hit the reset button and keep the Senators afloat.
"I think that comes with experience," he said. "Earlier in my career there were times where you feel really good about your game and you're all excited to be there, then you have a bad day and it's like someone shot your dog. You can't play hockey that way, you have to be a professional and come to work every day and stay nice and even."
"I think what he's done is matured. and he's figured out where he is, and he's figured himself out. All he does is try to be himself and nothing more than that. That's what all players are searching for, [trying] to find that level of where they are at and not get over it and not get too far under it. I think he's done a good job of learning over his career, and that's what makes him good."
With any team, the relationship between all of the many moving parts takes time to forge and then remains a constant work in progress. The Senators are the perfect example of a team that has been able to almost constantly move forward as the personnel grows and becomes more in tune with each other.
After a rough start to last season, the Sens made a surprise trip to the playoffs before being bounced in seven games in the first round by the New York Rangers. This year, in spite of significant injuries, the Senators have advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Needless to say, Anderson has been a catalyst to the team's forward momentum.
"Andy's been great for us all year. Andy's a confident guy that has a bit of edge to him," top center Jason Spezza said. "I think that suits our team well. I think that he wants to do well. I think he's real competitive. He's demanding of our team in front of him. I think we've got a good dynamic. The guys have gotten to know him well and know how to approach things with him, and I think he's been a good fit for our team."
And yes, that edge sometimes does reveal itself in the dressing room or during practice.
"Goalies are goalies and different guys have different things that make them tick," Spezza said. "His competitiveness is what makes him tick, and you can tell sometimes in practice he's unhappy -- but everyone knows how it is."
"He rewards us the way he's been playing."
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