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Why we should have seen Anderson’s game-stealing performance coming

Craig Anderson has a history of stealing games in the post-season, and he couldn't have picked a better time to put up his best performance of these playoffs with the Senators' season on the line.

Through 17 playoff games, Craig Anderson had been good. He had won 10 games, posted a .916 save percentage and turned aside 460 shots over the course of the post-season. But if the Ottawa Senators wanted to stay alive against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anderson had to be more than just good Tuesday night. He had to be great. In fact, he needed to be near perfect. 

So, he was.

In a do-or-die Game 6 for the Senators, Anderson was nothing short of spectacular. He stopped 45 of the 46 shots that came his way, with his lone slip-up coming on a dazzling bit of stickhandling in tight by Evgeni Malkin. There may have been one or two goalies in the world who, at that moment, could have stopped Malkin’s move. There was no shame in allowing that one to get by, especially when Anderson was perfect both before and after. And that his performance came on the heels of an outing in which he had been beaten four times on 14 shots made it all the more brilliant. But we should have seen it coming.

Leading up to Monday’s game, we wrote here that one of the things the Senators needed in order to push the Eastern Conference final to a seventh game was a standout performance from Anderson. That wasn’t without reason. Throughout his career, Anderson has shown a knack for having one outstanding game in every single post-sesaon he’s played in. Truth be told, to call the performances outstanding would be to undersell his habit of absolutely stealing a contest in every playoffs in which he’s participated.

Take a quick look through Anderson’s playoff brilliance and you get the idea. In 2010, as a member of the Avalanche, Anderson turned in a 51-save shutout against the San Jose Sharks, which led to the infamous Dan Boyle own-goal that gave Colorado the win 51 seconds into overtime. Then came the 41-save shutout in 2012, Anderson’s first playoff as a Senator, against the New York Rangers. In 2013, Anderson turned in amazing 48- and 49-save performances against the Montreal Canadiens and Penguins in respective rounds. Finally, during Ottawa’s last trip to the post-season in 2015, Anderson took the crease back from Andrew Hammond and fought valiantly to keep the Senators alive. Anderson lost a heartbreaker in overtime, stopping 47 of 49 shots along the way, but pulled off a familiar 45-save, one-goal against performance to help stretch the series to six games.

As alluded to ahead of Tuesday’s game, though, Anderson hadn’t yet had his one standout showing in these playoffs. He had had some good games, of course, but nothing that rose to the level of his most memorable nights. His 22-save shutout against the Boston Bruins in the first round was solid, as was his 37-save performance in the series-deciding Game 6 against the Rangers in the second round. Still, Anderson didn’t have that one, how-did-he-do-that contest entering Tuesday night. As of Wednesday morning, though, he does.

Anderson was lights out in Game 6. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins put 54 attempts towards Anderson’s net Tuesday night at 5-on-5 and 30 of those — 30! — were legitimate scoring chances. Beyond that, a whopping 11 attempts came from the high-danger scoring area around the net. Yet, Anderson was only beaten once. For those watching it live, it was quite possibly the best third-star performance they will ever see.

The question now, however, is how Anderson responds after having his standout performance. 

Historically, it’s been a mixed bag. Three of the games that came after Anderson stood on his head were likewise excellent, as he allowed two or fewer goals. But Anderson has also twice followed up his awe-inspiring performances with games in which he allowed three goals against, as well as having one atrocious outing against the Penguins in 2013. Following Anderson’s aforementioned 49-save game against Pittsburgh, he allowed six goals against on 38 shots as the Senators were unceremoniously booted from the playoffs. 

Even when he’s on his game in back-to-back contests, though, the results haven’t been there for Anderson. Only once has he won the game following one of his tremendous post-season performances listed above, and that came when he pitched a 28-save shutout against Montreal. That’s not exactly going to put any Senators fans at ease as they head into Game 7. 

What might, however, is Anderson’s penchant for stellar play in elimination games. His isn’t perfect when a series is on the line — he’s won three, dropped four — but Anderson has been thrust into a must-win situation seven times and stopped 219 of the 233 shots he’s faced in those games, good for a .940 SP. After Tuesday, those do-or-die wins and losses include two 45-save outings and one shutout, and only twice has Anderson allowed more than two goals against.

But now comes the most important elimination game of Anderson’s career, and it’s a Game 7 against the defending champions with the Eastern Conference title on the line. Anderson did more than enough to earn Ottawa the chance to play in the series-deciding contest, and the hope now is that he has at least one more of those show-stealing efforts in him as the Senators attempt to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup final.

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