Now that things are officially all good in the Ottawa Senators' universe, goaltender Craig Anderson - one of the primary reasons why they are a legitimate Eastern Conference playoff contender - doesn't mind talking about how it all started. Not well. In September, the Senators had a new coach, half-a-dozen grads from their AHL championship team in Binghampton moving in, Daniel Alfredsson coming back off surgery and two veteran Europeans, Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba, both in desperate needs of a bounce-back season. And when they started losing, they didn't just lose a couple of heart-breakers. They were getting wiped out.
So while the Edmonton Oilers were briefly the darlings of the NHL, coming off an 8-4 start, it looked as if the Senators were about to endure the early stages of a rebuilding year. Surprise. With the Sens wrapping up the pre All-Star portion of the schedule with a game here tonight and then one more in Phoenix tomorrow, the roles are significantly reversed. Edmonton is long gone from the playoff race and Ottawa, notwithstanding a close 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks Saturday afternoon, is keeping up with the big boys in the Eastern Conference.
Anderson, who arrived in Ottawa in a deal with the Colorado Avalanche for Brian Elliott last February, acknowledges that the massive changes resulted in some challenging early growing pains.
"When we were losing, we weren't losing 3-2, we were losing 6-2 or 7-2," he said. "It was just games that were getting out of control; but we learned from them though.
"Since then, we've really established our game and found ways, when things weren't going our way, to keep the game interesting and keep it close."
Anderson is having one of those years that is difficult to appreciate, if it is filtered strictly through a statistical lens. The Senators have surrendered 1,609 shots this season, most in the NHL, leaving Anderson No. 33 in the NHL goalie ratings, which are based on goals-against average. However, he has a thoroughly respectable .912 save percentage and is tied for No. 2 in the league in the only stat his teammates care about - wins - with 25.
"The first few weeks, we didn't play very well and that made his numbers look way worse than they should have been," assessed centre Jason Spezza. "We gave a couple of teams seven goals and he was probably a victim of that more than anything."
The Sens got a glimpse of what Anderson could do in 18 appearances towards the end of what was a lost year last year when the Sens finished 13th overall, just two points out of the Eastern Conference basement. Anderson went 11-5-1 for the Sens, with a 2.05 goals-average, a surge that took them out of the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins sweepstakes. Ottawa liked enough of what they saw from Anderson to sign him to a multi-year contract extension. All those years of playing for the Florida Panthers when they were a mediocre team helped Anderson adjust to high shot totals. On a lot of nights, he plays his best hockey when the team is under siege - and a perfect example came last Thursday in a game against the San Jose Sharks when the Sens fell behind 1-0 after a poor start, but survived the storm, thanks largely to Anderson's strong play.
"They're all over us in the first 10 minutes and it's 1-0 instead of 3-0," said Spezza. "Then we take control after that and win 4-1. So he's been a real calming presence for us that way.
"He's made big saves at the right time. He plays the puck well. He's been a work horse. He's played every night, practices every day. He's showing he can be an every-day guy. He works hard in games and whenever we seem to have a lapse in the game, and we're maybe not as good as we should be, he kind of gets us through that and is giving us an opportunity to get wins."
The win over San Jose gave Ottawa points in 11 consecutive road games. Overall, they have the league's fourth best road record after the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks.
The Senators will have 30 games remaining after the all-star break to secure that playoff spot. With two matches to go until then, already have 27 wins, five shy of last year's final total. Even with all those games in hand, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens will have a hard time making up that ground in the Northeast Division.
"We've been playing with good structure," said Spezza. "We have a good, hard-working club, and we've had contributions from everyone. I think that the foundation of our game is trying to have a fast-paced game and getting everybody involved and everybody working the same way. I think that's why our game is giving us results at home and on the road."