The Ottawa Senators showed some rust and turned the puck over more than a few times in their season opener.
It wasn’t the kind of game coaches are particularly proud of, but goaltender Craig Anderson’s brilliance was enough to give the Senators a 1-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night at First Niagara Center.
Anderson made 35 saves for his 23rd career shutout and stole the spotlight in a battle of potential U.S. Olympic hopefuls against Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.
“You want to be there for your team, give them an opportunity to win,” Anderson said. “When you watch the other guy at the other end make big save after big save, it just gives you a little fire under your butt to kind of return the favour.”
It was just about as entertaining as a 1-0 game gets, due in part to a bevy of mistakes by the Senators and Sabres. Neither Ottawa coach Paul MacLean nor Buffalo’s Ron Rolston was all too happy about that, but it was easy for the Senators to chalk this one up to it being their first game of the regular season.
“I think it was a high-paced game the whole game,” said defenceman Erik Karlsson, who scored the game’s only goal late in the third. “It really showed that we haven’t played in a while and we made some obvious mistakes, but at the same time I still think that over periods of time we really played well and created chances.”
When the Sabres got quality chances, Anderson was there to compensate. The 32-year-old appreciated some blocked shots and was thankful for some lucky bounces, like Steve Ott fanning with an empty net, but he was locked in just about from the drop of the puck.
He and Miller had to be, thanks to four penalty calls in the first eight minutes. The Sabres and Senators combined to put 39 shots on net in the first, setting a record for the most in a scoreless period in the NHL’s expansion era that dates to 1967, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The pressure ratcheted up as the shots and saves piled up, but Anderson didn’t falter.
“In baseball, guys need run support and in hockey, goalies need goal support,” he said. “Your job as a pitcher or a goalie is just to make sure your team’s in there at the end and give yourselves an opportunity to at least get a point. That’s kind of the way the night went. It was going back and forth, and I was just trying to make that next save and not worry or get too far ahead of yourself.”
Miller had already made 44 saves by the time Karlsson scored on the game’s 80th shot with 1:35 left. Clarke MacArthur found Karlsson with a perfect pass, and the Sabres’ franchise goaltender had almost no chance of stopping it.
“I was just waiting, snuck in there,” Karlsson said. “He’s been so good, Miller, the whole game, so I just figure, ‘OK I’ve got to try and put it between the legs when he’s moving over,’ and it worked.”
Miller took little solace in making 45 stops and firing up a sellout crowd of 19,070 for the Sabres’ home opener.
“I just needed to make one more save there,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”
He made plenty of them, earning tons of credit from the Senators for his “outstanding” and “unbelievable” play. But Rolston, even while praising Miller, said he didn’t like “pretty much everything” else from his team.
MacLean wasn’t glowing, either. The Senators’ coach had to keep his own frustration in check as he lamented a lot of his players “playing for both teams” by coughing up the puck and getting caught in bad situations.
“I think it’s an important part that you don’t get carried away,” MacLean said. “It’s easy to get carried away and get looser and looser. I think we did a little bit of that tonight. We got a little carried away and we really had to work hard to get our focus back on how we had to play the game.”
Focus came in the form of Anderson making sublime saves, including nine on Sabres co-captain Thomas Vanek. The Senators had enough faith in their goaltender that they didn’t have to fear making a mistake.
“It helps a lot, especially for players like me,” Karlsson said. “I can take chances sometimes and I know that unless the other player beats him, he’s going to make a stop. Today he stopped them all.”
Karlsson had a clutch stop of his own, diving and fully extending at the net to cut off Vanek after getting beat during the third period.
“He’s the one and only. We love him,” Anderson said of Karlsson. “He may get out of position, but he’s so fast and he’s so smart that he’s able to get back and make huge plays for us. If he doesn’t work as hard as he did, he doesn’t get back and maybe Vanek scores there and we lose the game.”
Playing so close to the edge in a game that was scoreless for 58-plus minutes isn’t ideal for the Senators, who visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night and hope to have some “kinks” figured out, according to MacLean.
But Anderson was more up to the task against the Sabres, delivering a memorable opening-night performance.
“He’s prepared himself really well, he’s got a lot of confidence,” Ottawa captain Jason Spezza said. “He’s one of the best goalies in the game, and we’re lucky to have a guy that gives us a chance to win every night. The saves he makes enables us to stick around in that game and get the win.”