Fans at Capital One Arena for the Capitals vs. Bruins game on May 15, 2021 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Craig Anderson turns 40 on May 21 and is playing on his fifth NHL team in 18 seasons; this year, he spent the majority of the Washington Capitals regular season on the newly introduced taxi squad, making an appearance in only four games. His role on the team has been clear: Anderson only gets called upon if the other Capitals goaltenders are unavailable or if he’s needed in a backup role.

On Saturday, Anderson had his most significant assignment as a Capitals player. With Game 1 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Capitals and Boston Bruins tied at 1-1, Anderson entered his first playoff game in four years to replace starting goaltender Vítek Vaněček, who exited the game with a lower body injury in the first period. Vaněček would not return to the game, and the Capitals, playing in front of a pandemic-limited capacity crowd of 5,333 fans at Capital One Arena, would need to rely on a veteran goalie who only played a total of 168 minutes and 44 seconds this season.

Anderson stepped up in a big way, saving 21 of 22 shots, and the Capitals beat the Bruins, 3-2, in overtime.

“You can say I’m well rested for not playing too much,” he said with a smile after the game. “I think it’s one of those things coming into the year, I knew the situation, I knew the role I was asked to do. I think when opportunity knocks, you make the most of the opportunity.”

The Caps are on their third goalie of the season with rookie Vaněček and Ilya Samsonov receiving the majority of the minutes. Washington signed Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year deal during the offseason, but the 39-year-old put his career on pause after open-heart surgery. Pheonix Copley is the team’s emergency goalie.

Samsonov and center Evgeny Kuznetsov have been on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list since May 4 and did not dress to play in Saturday’s game. Both players practiced for the first time in nearly two weeks at the team’s Arlington facility yesterday and are off the COVID-19 list. The Washington Post reported that one of the players had tested positive while the other was deemed a close contact. Capitals coach Peter Laviolette told reporters that Kuznetsov would be unavailable to play for a “few more days” and did not give a direct answer when asked if Samsonov will be an option in tonight’s Game 2 at Capital One Arena. He also did not have an update on Vaněček’s status, except to say that he remains day-to-day.

But on Saturday, Laviolette expressed his trust and confidence in Anderson.

“It was great to see Andy to come off the bench and play the way he did in a big game like this,” he said. “I don’t think anybody expected anything different; I don’t think we were wondering. Everybody was pretty confident just based on his career. The amount of starts that he’s had in his career, his numbers have been good his entire life in the National Hockey League and he came off the bench and did what he always does.”

It had been 752 days since the Capitals played a playoff game in front of their home fans. Capital One Arena is still limited to 25 percent capacity, with full capacity allowed starting June 11, but the thousands of red-clad fans waving their 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs giveaway towels brought life into the arena.

The fans got to see the nationally villainized, but locally celebrated Tom Wilson score the first goal of the playoffs just 6:22 into the first period, cheered and waved their towels as Brenden Dillon put the Caps back on top in the second period, and jumped out of their seats in joy as Nic Dowd scored the game-winner in overtime.

Afterward, Dowd, Anderson, and Dillon received the three stars of the game, with the loudest cheers saved for Anderson. Alex Ovechkin told reporters after the game that the veteran goaltender was “outstanding” and gave the team “a chance to win.”

“I think the biggest thing is that he just was so calm and poised in what he did and he played so well,” Dowd said of Anderson. “It’s got to be challenging for any player to come off the bench like that and be forced into that situation, also being cold, there’s a lot of things that go into it. But I think our team has shown that we’ve done that all year, and we’ve been able to be successful, and I think guys have learned how to do it.”