Philadelphia, PA – While the Ottawa Senators were in the midst of making 11 straight playoff appearances from the mid-1990s through the better part of the last decade, there always seemed to be something missing: a steady goaltender.
That's not to say all of the team's goaltenders during that stretch were bad, it's just that none of them were able to stick with the team for one reason or another.
There was Patrick Lalime, a goaltender who was more than serviceable for the Senators for a few seasons before the team decided to take a chance on an aging Dominik Hasek. Except Hasek was past his prime by the time he reached Ottawa and only lasted one injury-plagued season with the club.
Then there was Hasek's replacement, Ray Emery, who was young, talented and on the fast track to become Ottawa's first true franchise goaltender. Only Emery earned a reputation as a diva and wound up being waived a year after leading the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007.
Really, for their entire existence the Senators have been waiting for a goaltender who was capable of grabbing the No. 1 job for the long term. After two decades of digging, the team finally may have unearthed that goaltender in Craig Anderson.
Finding the right goalie for any given team is harder than it looks. Just because a guy had success somewhere else, doesn't mean he's going to produce a Xerox copy of those results with a new team. By the same token, however, a poor run with one, or even two NHL teams doesn't mean a goaltender's career is ruined either. Of course, the second path was the one taken by Anderson.
Like Mike Smith did when he moved from Tampa Bay to Phoenix, Anderson has had a chance to hit the reset button in Ottawa and he didn't waste the opportunity.
Anderson's rise to prominence has been anything but easy. A third-round pick by Chicago in 2001, the Illinois native broke into the NHL with the Blackhawks in 2002. Yet, it took seven years for Anderson to get his first real opportunity as a No. 1 goaltender when he started 71 games for the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10 and helped lead the team to the playoffs.
However, Anderson struggled in the following season and as the Avalanche faded out of the 2010-11 playoff picture, they decided to ship him to Ottawa for current St. Louis Blues backstop Brian Elliott, another goaltender destined for big things in some place other than Colorado.
The rest, as they say, is history. Since leaving Colorado for the Senators in February of 2011, all Anderson has done is start in 87 games and post a 50-29-8 record.
So far this season, the 31-year-old has taken his play up a couple of notches. Anderson is tied for the most wins in the NHL with six and also leads eligible goaltenders with a save percentage of .956. Anaheim's Viktor Fasth has the league's best goals against average at 1.30, but Anderson is at 1.33 and has played in six more games than Fasth.
Most importantly, Anderson's play has helped Ottawa to first place in the Northeast Division, a spot the Senators currently share with the Boston Bruins.
Thanks to his blazing start to the lockout-shortened season, Anderson was named the NHL's First Star of the Month for January. If he keeps up the pace, Anderson could receive even more significant hardware, like a Vezina Trophy.
Although he's experiencing a career renaissance in Ottawa, Anderson manages to fly under the radar as if he was still the journeyman goaltender who bounced around with three teams before finding a home with the Senators. Maybe that's because he plays in Ottawa and not New York or Toronto, or perhaps it's because superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson is busy hogging the Sens' spotlight on a game-by-game basis.
If Anderson continues to play at the level he has since joining the Sens nearly two years ago, he'll give the hockey world no choice but to respect him. Then again, maybe Anderson will have to earn his laurels from the hockey world the old fashioned way -- by winning in the playoffs. That, of course, would be the perfect scenario for the Senators.
In the end, the lack of fanfare surrounding Anderson is of little importance to the Senators. After all, in Ottawa they're just happy to have a goaltender they can finally depend on after all these years.