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Started from the bottom: Craig Anderson took the long road to become Lundqvist’s equal

Started from the bottom: On Craig Anderson's long road to stardom

If first impressions stuck, Craig Anderson wouldn’t be here helping the Ottawa Senators threaten a trip to the Eastern Conference final.

From an embarrassing losing streak at the start of his NHL career to a merry-go-round through waivers to tending goal for some of the league’s worst teams, Anderson had to work his way up from the bottom to reach this stage and join Henrik Lundqvist as one of the game’s elite.

“We know how good he is,” said Senators teammate Mark Stone, “but I think some people don’t.”

Anderson thinks that’s because of a painful first impression which saw him lose the first 13 decisions of his NHL career, and 17-of-18 overall, as a member of his hometown Blackhawks. Born about 30 minutes outside Chicago in Park Ridge, Ill., and drafted in the third round by the club in 2001, Anderson made his NHL debut on Nov. 30, 2002 and didn’t earn a first win until Jan. 22, 2004.

“It’s tough for a goalie to get any credibility when you’re on a bad team and losing all the time,” Anderson said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

Anderson chased starts for three seasons in Chicago behind the likes of Jocelyn Thibault, Michael Leighton and Nikolai Khabibulin, before he was finally placed on waivers in January of 2006. Within a crazy span of two weeks and a day, Anderson bounced across waivers — from Boston to St. Louis, and back to Chicago.

He was dealt to Florida that summer.

“Goaltending is timing,” said Anderson, who helped the Senators take a 2-0 series lead on New York with 43 saves in Game 2 on Saturday. “With a skater, there’s 18 skaters at any given time so there’s a lot more opportunity for a younger guy to get in. With one goalie playing — if it’s a starter who’s 30 years old who’s going to play 65, 70 games — your opportunity is just not there.”

It wasn’t much of an opportunity, but Anderson played well as Tomas Vokoun’s backup with the Panthers. He credits the turnaround to the shift in outlook he gleaned from Tim Thomas, a teammate during his brief time with the Bruins.

Thomas was then an unknown 31-year-old former Quebec Nordiques draft pick who’d gotten only a sniff of the NHL amid stints in Europe and the minors.

Anderson saw someone who loved the game no less.

“It really put my career in perspective,” said the now-35-year-old, a Masterton trophy nominee this season for his inspired performance (.926 save percentage) during wife Nicholle’s battle with cancer. 

Anderson ditched a negative outlook and opted to approach life more optimistically â€” just as Thomas apparently did. His fellow American netminder, who eventually won two Vezinas, a Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup, was also proof that a goaltender’s career wasn’t over at 30.

There was still time to turn the narrative around and craft a new first impression.

“It’s one of the positions where 35 is really not that old,” Anderson said. 

After two seasons with the woeful Avalanche — one good, one bad personally — Anderson was finally dealt to Ottawa, his sixth NHL team, for another goalie in Brian Elliott who hadn’t yet found his way.

Anderson’s first impression with the Senators: a 47-save shutout of the Maple Leafs.

Things “just snowballed” from there and after only 11 games in the black, red and gold, Ottawa signed him to a four-year extension worth almost US$13 million. Another three-year contract â€” which expires after next season and carries a bargain $4.2 million cap hit â€” followed after that. 

“Any time you can get that new first impression it gives you an opportunity to open up people’s eyes and say, ‘Hey, this is who I am’,” Anderson said. “When things get negative and you’re not playing well, it’s a snowball effect. Before you know it the snowball’s too big, you can’t knock it down.”

The snowball has rolled the other way during an underrated run in Ottawa â€” which saw apparent No. 1s of the future, such as Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, tossed aside in favour of the guy who just kept getting better. Anderson may not get the recognition league-wide, but he’s been on the same level as Lundqvist since that debut for Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2011:

Lundqvist: .922 save percentage, .930 even-strength save percentage, 30 shutouts

Anderson: .920 save percentage, .928 even-strength save percentage, 24 shutouts

The only goalies with a better overall save percentage during the six-year run (min. 275 games): Carey Price (.924), Cory Schneider (.923), Tuukka Rask (.922), Braden Holtby (.922), and Lundqvist.

“When you start your career out 0-14-5 or whatever it’s pretty tough to dig yourself out of it,” Anderson said. “Now, you have to change all those first impressions.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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