On Thursday night in Pittsburgh, the Ottawa Senators will play a do-or-die Game 7 against the Penguins with a spot in the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
They have Craig Anderson to thank for that.
The Senators were outplayed for much of Tuesday’s Game 6. The Penguins outshot the Sens 46-30, led 75-46 in shot attempts and 11-4 in high danger scoring chances.
But outplaying the opponent doesn’t always guarantee a victory. After the final horn, it was the Senators who led in the one statistic that ultimately matters: goals. The scoreboard gave the advantage to Ottawa, 2-1.
There wasn’t a huge difference in the way that the Penguins played from Game 5, which they won 7-0, to Game 6. There was one huge difference for the Senators, though, and that was Anderson.
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The netminder had a rough go of things in Game 5, stopping just 9 of the 12 shots he faced as he was pulled (twice) in favor of backup Mike Condon. It was arguably his worst performance in an otherwise very strong postseason.
Considering how important Anderson has been to Ottawa’s Cinderella playoff run, he needed to have a bounceback performance to stave off elimination in Game 6. To say he did that would be an understatement.
Anderson made 45 saves and was the unquestionable First Star in the victory. Given the number of high quality chances that Pittsburgh put on net, we could easily be giving a postmortem and previewing a Penguins-Predators matchup in the Stanley Cup Final.
Instead, Anderson played like a stud when his team needed it most, and now we’re looking forward to a Game 7.
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Ottawa has been considered an underdog throughout their entire playoff run. They’ve often been outplayed but have impressed in their ability to ride strong performances from a few individuals – usually Anderson or elite offensive defenseman Erik Karlsson – and claw out gutsy wins.
The Penguins are reigning Stanley Cup champions and generally considered to be the better team. If they play like they have in the past few games, there’s a good chance that they’ll be moving on to the Stanley Cup Final with a chance to defend their throne against Nashville.
But that’s no sure thing, especially if Anderson bring the same kind of performance as the one on Tuesday. If recent trends are any indication, there’s good reason to believe he can. In Anderson’s last four elimination games, dating back to 2014, he is 3-1 with a .978 save percentage and a 0.76 goals against average.
We’ve seen it plenty of times in playoffs past and present – a goalie can steal games that their team doesn’t necessarily deserve to win. Anderson has the ability to do that and it’s something that Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher, who is in his first year behind the Sens’ bench, doesn’t take for granted.
"It starts with the goalie," Boucher said. "It's always going to start with the goalie for me because I've been humbled enough now in situations where you can play great and you just can't win. It's like a quarterback in football and a pitcher in baseball, and we have it. We got that guy."
"If I didn't have a No. 1 goalie, I didn't want the job. It's hell when you don't have it because everything you do turns to darkness and there's nothing that really matters when you don't have a real No. 1 goaltender.”
Prior to Ottawa, Boucher’s first and only NHL head coaching gig came with the Lightning, who didn’t have a proven starter in net over much of his final few seasons in Tampa. It may have cost him his job.
Now, Boucher has Anderson to show him the light and – maybe, just maybe -- the Stanley Cup Final.