As tough as it’s been for Ron Wilson to watch his Toronto Maple Leafs play on some nights this season, he’s been given reason to smile when watching other NHL teams on television.
Wilson’s second job is to coach the 2010 U.S. Olympic team and American goaltenders Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson have arguably been the NHL’s best so far.
Even though the veteran coach is quick to note that plenty of time remains before the U.S. unveils its team on Jan. 1, he’s clearly excited about the options available to him for the Vancouver Games.
“Craig Anderson has suddenly put himself in a very good spot by playing as well as he has up to this point,” Wilson said this week. “But we still have another two months essentially to make our minds up. Clearly, the front-runner right now to be the (No. 1) goalie is Ryan Miller. We thought he would play well, but he’s been phenomenal.”
Miller is at or near the top of every major goaltending category after an amazing start to the season: he’s got a 9-1-1 record, .941 save percentage, 1.69 goals-against average and two shutouts.
The 29-year-old was left at home for the Turin Olympics, but might end up being the most important player USA Hockey brings to Vancouver.
Coming out of the summer orientation camp in suburban Chicago, the battle for the No. 1 job was thought to be between Miller and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas. The third goalie at camp was Jonathan Quick, a 23-year-old having another good season for the Los Angeles Kings.
Anderson was nowhere to be found even though he could have easily driven there from his off-season home in Illinois. He’s been something of a journeyman – spending five seasons in the Chicago Blackhawks system and another three with the Florida Panthers before landing with the Avalanche in July.
He’s now getting his first real opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and has taken full advantage, getting named the league’s top player for October. The 28-year-old always thought he had what it took to succeed at this level.
“You’ve got to be an optimist, you can’t look at all the negatives,” Anderson said recently. “As you second-guess and doubt yourself, that’s when things start to go sour. It’s all about confidence and believing in yourself and believing in the guys around you.”
People around the league are starting to believe in him, too. Not only are U.S. Olympic officials talking about his fine play, Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault recently labelled Anderson the best player in the NHL at the moment.
That’s high praise.
Of course, the challenge for Anderson moving forward will be to try and keep his good roll going. He started Colorado’s first 15 games – getting his first rest Wednesday when Peter Budaj was between the pipes – and is 10-3-2 with a .936 save percentage, 2.11 GAA and two shutouts.
Suddenly, he’s receiving some attention, but he’s also trying to earn an Olympic spot at the position the U.S. might have the most depth. Miller is a lock, Thomas is bound to turn things around and Quick is pushing hard for a spot.
After waiting seven years just to get an opportunity as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL, Anderson is not the type of guy who is likely to take anything for granted.
“You’ve got to be one of the best,” said Anderson. “When you’re given an opportunity due to an injury or an opportunity like this where you get signed (by Colorado as a free agent), you’ve got to make the most of it.
“Sometimes you take things for granted and you’re just happy to be part of the league, but you have to be kind of a go-getter. You’ve got to believe that you can take over the No. 1 and beat out a guy who’s been in the league for 10 years.”
With an attitude like that, more opportunities surely await.
A trio of San Jose Sharks with Canadian passports are piling up the points: Patrick Marleau (11-11-22), Joe Thornton (4-16-20) and Dany Heatley (10-8-18) … Ryan Smyth remains hot and is on pace for the best offensive totals of his 14-year career. Captain Canada desperately wants a third Olympic experience … The ultra-durable Eric Staal is currently listed as week-to-week with an upper-body injury. The Team Canada bubble boy missed just one game in his first five NHL seasons … Nashville defenceman Shea Weber is day-to-day with a foot injury while Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews remains sidelined with a concussion.
There’s no change at the top of this week’s rankings. Here’s how we see the league at the moment:
1. Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby, pugilist.
2. San Jose. Six straight wins for last year’s Presidents Trophy winners.
3. Buffalo. Still flying under the radar.
4. Colorado. Just 11,000 fans at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night. Really?
5. Washington. No one is saying much about the extent of Ovechkin’s injury.
26. St. Louis. Only a win or two from climbing up the standings.
27. Anaheim. Too many penalties, not enough offence from Ryan Getzlaf.
28. Minnesota. They’re 1-8-0 away from home.
29. Toronto. Phil Kessel!
30. Carolina. Eastern Conference finalists in the spring, winless in 10 games now.
“The players didn’t ask to be vaccinated, they were following instruction. Our players have zero culpability.” – Calgary Flames CEO Ken King after it was revealed the team jumped the queue to receive H1N1 flu shots.