Craig Anderson was Craig Anderson.
Calm, cool, collected, when no one in the hockey world expected him to be.
After posting a shutout against the Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 of the Senators’ yearly trip to Western Canada, Anderson was granted personal leave and returned home to be with his family.
At the time, the team was two games above .500 and comfortably sitting in a playoff spot as many others in the Eastern Conference continued to grapple with injury troubles. Anderson’s absence left a large hole in the lineup, but there was room for error.
And then there wasn’t.
Andrew Hammond left Friday night’s tilt against the Flames with a lower-body injury in the first period and would be out for at least a week. In Hammond’s absence, Chris Driedger struggled immensely, allowing a couple of dreadful goals en route to a 5-2 loss. Ottawa had called up Matt O’Connor and in the mean time, were using Oilers back-up practice goalie Brad German as their No. 2.
It was difficult to recall a time when the Senators needed Anderson more.
A group of players still getting used to their new system and about to play seemingly the NHL’s second-best team with their No. 3 and 4 goaltenders at hand, there wasn’t much hope for Ottawa to come away from the West Coast with a winning record.
Then the news broke Saturday afternoon.
Anderson’s wife Nicholle had been diagnosed with cancer.
Immediately, the state of the team didn’t matter. The goaltending woes, the doomed Western road trip, the exceedingly horrifying Oilers offense that awaited the Senators on Sunday night; it all took a back seat to real life.
But along with the tragic news of Nicholle’s diagnosis came a courageous act. With the unfortunate sequence of events unfolding on the ice at the Saddledome Friday night, Nicholle encouraged Anderson to call Pierre Dorion, in hopes that he would join the team just in time for Sunday’s game.
Anderson was on the first flight to Alberta’s capital, attempting to focus on hockey and hockey only.
On to the game.
The Senators were caught off guard by the Oilers’ speed, especially that of Connor McDavid’s, as they took three minor penalties in the first period. But Anderson stood tall.
Hopefully a sign of good things to come, Mike Hoffman netted his first of the season off a beautiful feed from Tom Pyatt and Ottawa took the lead.
After a shaky start to the 2016-17 campaign, Anderson looked different. He was moving well in the crease, cutting down the angles and seldom letting any rebounds get away from him. He pounced on a loose puck late in the third period with the urgency of a goaltender fighting off the final minutes of Game 7 in the playoffs.
You just knew something special was about to happen.
In the dying seconds, Chris Kelly made a perfect, behind-the-back breakout pass to Bobby Ryan who made no mistake as he fired the puck into the empty net.
At the other end, Anderson showed pure elation, fist-pumping, dropping to his knees and looking skyward.
With five seconds left, Kyle Turris won a neutral zone faceoff back to Cody Ceci who retreated back behind his own net to wait out the clock. Anderson’s face turned redder than the jersey he was wearing, Chris Neil tried to fight back his emotions and the entire team stormed the ice to take part in a much needed group hug.
A performance that would make you swear it was the Anderson of the lockout year who wrote his name in goaltending history, not the Anderson who failed to post a save percentage above .900 the first four games of the season. And circumstances reminiscent of the 2014-15 playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, where the Senators looked upon their No. 1 when all hope was lost and their Cinderella Story seemed to be coming to an end.
But no, it was bigger than that.
It wasn’t the game that made thousands of hockey fans shed a tear as the 35-year-old was greeted by his teammates, all of them on the verge of bawling their eyes out when the final buzzer sounded. It wasn’t the shutout victory that made Oilers netminder Cam Talbot stick around to applaud Anderson while he took a bow, saluting the away crowd that couldn’t have made him feel more like he was still in the nation’s capital. And it wasn’t the 37 saves that made TSN’s Chris Cuthbert dub it “one of the most remarkable shutouts in Ottawa Senators history.”
No, it was bigger that that.
It would’ve been easy for Craig and Nicholle to stick with the plan. Stay in Florida another day, drive to Ottawa the next morning and rejoin the team when they arrived back from their West Coast swing, ready to go for the Carolina Hurricanes at home on Tuesday.
Instead, Nicholle told him to go.
The hockey world wasn’t applauding the Senators’ victory or the Illinois native’s stellar performance last night.
They were applauding the Andersons.