Mental toughness has made goalie Craig Anderson the Ottawa Senators’ steely savior

OTTAWA — Mike Condon is a goalie union guy. Given the opportunity, the Ottawa Senators backup likes to chat with opposing netminders before games. Maybe he’ll just say hello. During warm-ups, he often talks shop with other goalies along the red line.

Last year, when Condon was serving as a backup for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he faced the Senators. Before the game, Condon made eye contact with Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson, surmised that Anderson didn’t want to chat and simply gave a little head nod.

Anderson just stared back at him.

Condon, an affable guy, took the slight like most of us would.

“[I thought], ‘This guy’s a jerk,’” said Condon, who is now Anderson’s backup in Ottawa, with a laugh. “I don’t know what the right word is — surly?”

The moment stuck with Condon — who, along with Anderson and the rest of their Senators teammates, will face Pittsburgh on Thursday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals — so he later asked him about it. Why couldn’t Anderson at least have nodded back?

“He was like, ‘I’m playing you. I want to beat you,’” Condon said. “He’s a great guy. But he’s a great competitor.”

And that was before the game. Once the puck drops, Anderson is even more intense. Condon pointed to an exchange between Anderson and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin near the end of one of the Eastern Conference final games. Malkin had spent a little too much time in the crease and Condon heard Anderson make it clear to the Penguins star that it wasn’t acceptable.

“He got into it with Malkin,” Condon said. “He said he was going to slash him if he came in there again. A little old-school hockey.”

Anderson is definitely a throwback — or maybe, at 36, one of the last ones standing from a bygone era. He’s not robotic. He doesn’t necessarily rely on technique or play on auto-pilot. He’s out there making saves. When Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was in the other net, seeing how Fleury and Anderson reacted to shots was sometimes like watching a game film from another time. At times, it looks like Anderson is almost daring the shooter to beat him.

Too often in Game 5, they did. Anderson was pulled — not once, but twice — as he allowed four goals on 14 shots. It threatened to end a season that has been part magical and part inspirational for Anderson on an ugly note. The Penguins’ offense had finally arrived, and it looked like there was nothing Anderson could do about it.

Until Game 6.

“He gave us a chance to come back,” Senators forward Mike Hoffman said of Anderson, who made 45 saves in Ottawa’s 2-1 win over the Penguins on Tuesday night.

Anderson is the main reason there will be a Game 7 in this series. The way he completely flushed away a disappointing performance and rebounded with one of the most impressive individual goaltending displays this postseason, allowing the Senators to live another day, encapsulates his mental toughness as well as anything.

The Senators expect that from Anderson. They’ve seen him do it too many times not to.

How long did it take Anderson to move on from the ugly loss in Game 5?

“Oh God, Andy does that right after the game,” Senators defenseman Marc Methot said. “He’s a veteran goalie. He’s been around a long time. In my opinion, [he's] one of the best goaltenders in the league and he’s shown it all season for us. To see him have a bounce-back game, I’m not even remotely surprised.”

Anderson has been in the NHL since the 2002-03 season. He’s seen some things.

He said his biggest strides as a pro came once he started focusing on the mental aspect of the game. He began working with a sports psychologist shortly after his professional career started. Anderson continues to study the psychological side of the game by reading books on the topic.

“Having nights like tonight just emphasizes things you’ve read or things you’ve been taught,” Anderson said after carrying his team in Game 6.

When Senators coach Guy Boucher, who coached the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2010 to 2013, followed by a stint in Switzerland, was considering whether to return to NHL — and specifically whether to take that plunge with the Senators — the goalie situation was where he focused. Yes, it would be nice to coach star defenseman Erik Karlsson, but Boucher had been burned previously by bad goaltending.

The Lightning have benefited from standout play from both Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy the past few years. But it wasn’t always that way in Tampa Bay. When a Boucher-led team last made the postseason, it was on the back of a resurrected Dwayne Roloson, who at 41 helped the Lightning reach the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to the Bruins in seven games.

Once that magic ended, the Lightning cycled through goalies. The season Boucher was fired, his options in goal were Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon, neither of whom had a save percentage above .902. It made winning consistently nearly impossible.

So when Boucher considered the Senators job, he took it seriously first and foremost because of Anderson.

“If I didn’t have a No. 1 goalie, I didn’t want the job,” Boucher said. “It’s hell when you don’t have one, because everything you do turns to darkness.”

Thanks to Anderson, the light is still burning for this remarkable Senators playoff run. He’s given them one more game. At least.

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