HARD HITS: Anderson’s performance forces Game 7


For a while, Craig Anderson has been the Senators’ number one goalie. A former Blackhawk, Panther and Avalanche who didn’t really establish himself as a consistent starter until he was acquired by Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2011 from Colorado for Brian Elliott, the admirable 36-year old American has the Senators on the verge of a second ever Stanley Cup appearance in 10 years.

In his first full season as the Ottawa starter, he won 33 games and posted a 2.83 goals-against-average with a .913 save percentage during the ’11-12 season to get them in as an eighth seed. He lifted his play in a tightly contested first round series against the top seeded Rangers. Anderson nearly matched more established Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist, posting a 2.00 GAA and .933 save percentage with a shutout in a tough seven-game series defeat. Lundqvist shut the door in Games 6 and 7 to help the Rangers advance.

Anderson has always been overlooked. He’s a solid number one who has proven to be reliable for the Senators. Injuries and off ice issues have side tracked him. The latest being wife Nicholle Anderson’s courageous fight with cancer. Her husband took time off to be with her in between playing 40 games for Ottawa. With backup Mike Condon able to fill in admirably, the Sens hung in and made the postseason. Anderson managed to post impressive numbers winning 25 games with a 2.28 GAA, .926 save percentage and five shutouts. Astonishing considering the time he missed.

His uncanny ability to focus during such a tough time is amazing. He helped lead the Sens past the rival Bruins and then avenged the 2012 loss to Lundqvist and the Rangers to get Ottawa into the Eastern Conference Final against the heavily favorite defending champion Penguins. Following a tough six-game series win that included some great comebacks and overtime theatrics in Games 2 and 5, I wondered how much they would have left. Particularly due to Erik Karlsson playing with fractures in his heel.

I figured they would be out of gas, taking the Pens in five. How wrong I was. Instead, it was the Sens who took control early holding the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel Pens to three goals in the first three games to take a 2-1 series lead. Anderson made timely stops and had help from his team defense. They play a tight 1-3-1 checking system and do a good job taking away the front of the net.

But the Pens rose to the challenge taking Game 4 on Brian Dumoulin’s game-winner and Matt Murray’s goaltending. Then came a dominant Game 5 in which they chased Anderson twice in a 7-0 shellacking on Sunday. The blowout win put the Pens up 3-2 within a game of a second straight Stanley Cup Final where the Predators await after finishing off the Ducks in six.

Questions surrounded the Sens. Were they done? But thanks to a heroic effort from Anderson in which he made 45 saves in a 2-1 Game 6 home victory, Ottawa has forced a Game 7. Without the unflappable netminder, there’s no way they would’ve survived a Pens onslaught that included plenty of territorial play and puck possession in the Sens zone.

They controlled much of the action with their speed and forecheck generating plenty of shots and quality chances. In many aspects, it was similar to what the Pens endured against the Caps last round with Marc-Andre Fleury stealing a couple of games while their talent solved Braden Holtby.

The Pens could’ve led by two. But Trevor Daley had a apparent goal overturned due to goalie interference on a controversial but successful challenge from Ottawa coach Guy Boucher. Daley thought he scored the game’s first goal when he went hard to the net and got to a Anderson rebound and steered it in. But they ruled that he made contact with the Ottawa goalie which kept him from getting back in position for Daley’s shot. Honestly, Ottawa got very lucky. It was one I would’ve let stand.

A great individual effort from Malkin in which he abused Zack Smith led to the remarkably gifted Russian center scoring to put the Pens up 1-0. As NBC’s Doc Emrick noted, that one counted. But in a lopsided second period which saw the Pens pepper Anderson with 23 shots, it was the only time they beat him legally. Not even tough deflections by Crosby and Malkin got by Anderson, who made some huge saves.

Still alive, Ottawa took advantage of a five-on-three to draw even. Following a very iffy interference call on Ron Hainsey, Ian Cole high-sticked Kyle Turris, the struggling Sens power play finally went to work. Karlsson started it by passing across for Turris, who quickly one-timed a pass to Bobby Ryan for a one-timer to the short side top past Murray to tie the game.

Ryan has had a terrific playoffs after a tough regular season. He has two goals and four assists in the series and has been a nightmare for the Pens even getting in the face of Crosby. Both were taken in the 2005 NHL Draft 1-2. It’s the best Ryan has ever played.

The Senators were absolute pests last night. They took liberties with Crosby during and following play. You had Ryan having a running dialogue with the Pens captain. You also had Marc Methot getting some revenge with a tap to Crosby with his stick while Mike Hoffman squirted water on him from the bench. It was all let go.

Ottawa did what it took to win. They played a much better third with Hoffman scoring the only goal off a Pens turnover when he blasted a slap shot high off the goalpost and in to convert a three-on-two from Fredrik Claesson and Clarke MacArthur with 18:26 left in regulation.

 

On a night the Pens outshot the Sens 46-30 and out-attempted them by a wide 75-46 margin, it didn’t matter due in large part to a brilliant Anderson. When he wasn’t turning the Pens aside, he had help from his D who chipped in with 17 blocked shots while Pittsburgh also missed 12 other attempts.

A more inspired third in which the shots were near even favoring the Pens 12-11 was enough for the Sens to prevail. Even with Bryan Rust taking Karlsson with him for matching roughs, the Senators were able to survive a dangerous four-on-four that saw Mike Sullivan try Crosby with Malkin.

Anderson delivered a money performance. The Sens did a great job shutting down the Pens once Murray was lifted for a extra attacker. They didn’t muster much due to Ottawa standing up at their blueline and staying aggressive to force the Pens into several neutral zone turnovers. Following one more big save from Anderson on Kessel with 36.5 seconds left, a pesky Turris clinched the win with a intercept and forecheck as time expired.

Ottawa has proven again that they belong in the conversation. A team that has had to silence doubters in the first two rounds is a game away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. As unlikely as it would be with them having to play a more complete Game 7 tomorrow in Pittsburgh who will undoubtedly get some of those calls, here they are.

They are not here without the inspirational Anderson, who has one chance to fulfill a childhood dream. It would be storybook. Game 7 is the greatest theatre in sports. When it’s for a place in the Stanley Cup, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Either it’ll be the very determined and resilient Pens led by generational talents minus many regulars. Or a gritty bunch of Sens who have a few key players banged up but have been written off before.

Nick Bonino, Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby

Has there ever been a more ignored superstar than the Pens Evgeni Malkin (top right)?

BODY CHECKS:

-Why would the Devils fire radio color commentator Sherry Ross with even the equipment manager and video operator going? Is there any sense to anything the new Devils ownership does? So much for class and loyalty.

-I’ve seen way too many critiques of Oscar Lindberg, who was under utilized by Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. Maybe he is a “fourth liner” as he’s been labeled. But it’s not like the gum chewing coach rode his most effective forechecking center in a disappointing second round ouster to the Senators. When he shortened up, he hurt the team’s biggest strength. Coincidentally, also overusing Nick Holden and Marc Staal in the critical Game 2 collapse. What’s going to change in Year 5?

-Do you think Mike Milbury bites his tongue on former Islanders coach Peter Laviolette reaching his third Stanley Cup Final with a third different team? The same Mad Mike who gave up on generational talent Zdeno Chara and a first round pick (Jason Spezza) to Ottawa for overrated Alexei Yashin. The same Milbury who dealt away future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo with Olli Jokinen to the Panthers for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish.

-ESPN isn’t what it used to be. But the E:60 coming up on P.K. Subban should be worth the watch. Subban even admitted he doesn’t know why he still isn’t a Canadien. They chose former coach Michel Therrien over him. Amazing. Shea Weber is no slouch. It’s just hard to believe how the once proud Canadiens operate under Marc Bergevin.

-Imagine if the Habs kept Ryan McDonagh and Subban. That was Bob Gainey, who must have had one too many Irish whiskeys with Glen Sather.

-At least there won’t be any beloved horse race once the Stanley Cup Final begins. Though we are certain NBC will give so much more attention to the Belmont Stakes a week from this Saturday than the Cup participants. They must be praying for the Pens tomorrow.

-What more does Malkin have to do to prove he was the biggest oversight on the beloved NHL top 100? He has a Conn Smythe, Hart, Art Ross, is way over a point-per-game for his career and leads the postseason with 24 points (7-17-24). If only he were Canadian instead of Russian and playing in Crosby’s shadow.

-Sometimes, I get the distinct impression NBC is paying Pierre McGuire to be Crosby’s PR spokesman. The hockey world knows how special Crosby is. We don’t need daily reminders between the benches. That would annoy me if I were playing the Pens.

-It’s true that the level of substandard officiating has been its usual during the postseason. But they shouldn’t ignore what Crosby has gotten away with either.

-I don’t want a penalty fest in the Cup like Milbury, who made his living beating up players and fans. Pretty hypocritical. I prefer they let them play. Don’t miss the egregious stick infractions or cross checks/boarding.

-Would anyone take playoff Alexander Ovechkin over Filip Forsberg?

-I’m happy for Henrik Lundqvist that he got a chance to win with twin brother Joel besting Canada in the shootout for Sweden to take gold in the World Championships. I just wish I could see him lift Lord Stanley at MSG as a Ranger. A image that’s getting further and further away fading into the sunset.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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