No one knows what goes on in the heads of goaltenders. What goes on in the heads of players, though, is sometimes easy to tell.
And that would be goalies.
Goalies at both ends can have a direct effect on a team’s confidence – but nothing shakes it as deeply as not having much faith in the goaltender wearing the same colour jersey.
The Ottawa Senators this year have gone as Craig Anderson goes. Their surprise season is largely thanks to the fact that, until he was injured this week, Anderson had faced more shots, 1,692, and made more saves, 1,544, than any other goalie in the NHL.
Instead of being an also-ran in a rebuilding season, the Senators have moved into the playoff hunt. It’s staying there that is now the issue.
Wednesday night in Ottawa, as Anderson and the Senators defeated the Washington Capitals, the team continued its 20th-anniversary celebrations by introducing goaltender Ron Tugnutt, a popular player who once put himself on the injury list by cutting his catching hand while slicing a bagel. In a bizarre coincidence, Anderson then went home and sliced a tendon in the baby finger of his stick hand while trying to separate frozen chicken.
Tugnutt got a bagel slicer; Anderson should consider delivery.
That small injury meant that the precarious playoff position of the Senators was now a goaltending concern. Saturday against the Boston Bruins, they put backup Alex Auld in net and promptly lost 5-3, the confidence-shattering moment being when Auld let in a drifting, soft wrist shot from Boston’s Brad Marchand.
By Sunday morning, as the nation’s capital prayed for quick healing of Anderson’s pinkie, the Senators’ net was in turmoil. Robin Lehner, the team’s minor-league goaltender, was chosen to start against the New York Islanders later in the day. At the same time, general manager Bryan Murray traded for yet another goalie, sending a second-round 2013 draft pick to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a Sasquatch named Ben Bishop, born 25 years ago in the Colorado Rockies.
At 6 feet 7 1/2 inches, Bishop is the largest goaltender to play in the NHL, though he has only played 13 games and has been stuck in the minor leagues where he was MVP in the AHL’s recent all-star game.
“I just try to take up as much of the net as possible,” he told the team.
Murray, however, wanted him to fill something else, as well: Lehner’s head. Lehner, a cocky, competitive 20-year-old often described as “the Senators’ goalie of the future,” has had a terrible year in the minors where he was thought to be sulking.
Murray deliberately prodded the youngster by striking the deal for Bishop. “Now we have competition,” the GM announced. “We need that challenge from within.”
It was an interesting experiment, and it seemed to work.
Against the Islanders, Lehner let in the second shot he faced, a goal by John Tavares off a three-on-one rush. Considering that the Senators whipped the Islanders 6-0 less than a week ago, they seemed like two different teams: the Islanders dominant and the Senators unable to get so much as a shot on net for more than half the opening period.
But then Lehner began to be the difference. He stopped whatever the Islanders sent his way, including a clean breakaway and, later, a lunging, eye-popping save on the sniper Tavares.
It seemed, for a while, as if Ottawa’s sudden injury worries might multiply, when leading scorer Jason Spezza left the game after taking a Daniel Alfredsson slap shot on the leg.
The Senators managed to tie the game on a power play when Milan Michalek got his team-leading 28th goal off an Erik Karlsson pass. The point was 21-year-old Karlsson’s 64th, eclipsing a team record for defenceman that had been set in 1992-93 by Norm Maciver.
Spezza not only returned but scored on a later power play to put the Senators up 2-1, Karlsson again setting up the goal.
The better Lehner played – square to the shooter, quick across his crease – the better his team played, until by the third period it was not much of a contest, just as had been the case a week ago when Anderson shut out the Islanders.
The game ended 5-2, Jim O’Brien, Chris Neil and Kyle Turris, into an empty net, finishing out the Ottawa scoring, P.A. Parenteau scoring for the Islanders. Lehner was chosen first star.
“It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year-old,” Lehner said after, the sweat still beading on him. “Playing in a Canadian city, and they bring in another goalie – it’s still pressure.
“I think I can handle it.”
He certainly did this day.