BUFFALO – Following his final NHL outing, Sabres goalie Craig Anderson enjoyed an emotional postgame salute from fans usually reserved for franchise icons.
The crowd Thursday in KeyBank Center roared as Anderson’s teammates swarmed him after center Casey Mittelstadt’s overtime goal secured a 4-3 triumph against the Ottawa Senators.
The cheering continued as Anderson, 41, had touching embraces with his current and former teammates and family.
Fans chanted, “Andy, Andy.” Anderson acknowledged their love, waving and clapping his hands as he skated around the ice.
Why such a special outpouring for a guy who arrived in the twilight of his playing days?
It was as if Anderson, the NHL’s oldest player, had spent most of his career in Buffalo and led them to glory. But the respected 20-year veteran played just 57 games for the Sabres over two seasons in which they missed the playoffs.
“That specifically speaks to how educated the fans are here,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said of the crowd’s support for Anderson. “They know what’s going on. They know the importance of the moment. I think pretty much everybody in the building tonight knew what was going on and knew how special that game was to him.
“It’s a passionate sports city. It’s a passionate hockey city. They’re in tune with how we’re doing and what’s going on with us, and I thought that the support that they showed him was incredible.”
Fans clearly also grasped how much Anderson, who announced his retirement in the dressing room following the game, has meant to the Sabres’ revival.
At times over his stint, he was often their best option in goal. Prior to getting injured last month, he won two critical road games late in the winter.
But Anderson’s lasting impact will likely be the professionalism and veteran leadership he helped instill in one of the NHL’s youngest teams. He was a beloved teammate.
“We needed to go young,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “If this franchise was going to turn it was about creating the next group of guys capable, young guys and taking young talent and helping them grow into NHL players. We had very few veterans, guys with experience. We couldn’t keep a lot because you’re squeezing out young guys. Between Zemgus (Girgensons), Kyle and Craig, it’s pretty amazing that we hit one, two, three on guys that give back and helped move this franchise.
“Craig will always be a part of that. I’m sure when he walks back in here it will be like he never left.”
Anderson said “fans have a lot to look forward to.”
“It’s been a great city,” he said. “It’s been a welcoming city. I’m looking forward to seeing where this city and this team can go.”
Anderson wanted to leave the NHL on his own terms. When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the 2019-20 season, he said he told his family and agent “that’s not the way it’s going to happen. Not writing that story.”
So Anderson plowed on, signing a one-year contract with the Washington Capitals in 2020-21 to serve as their third goalie. He spent most of the year on the taxi squad, playing just six total games.
Then the Sabres, fresh off an embarrassing last-place finish, came calling as they began rebuilding.
“Just persevered through some adversity,” Anderson said. “Taxi squad, etc. Able to find a home here where a GM and a coach came in and believed in me when I was more or less a washed up old guy. It really revived the career a little bit. (I’m) able to give back and share my experience with the young guys and get spot starts and do what I can to accelerate these other guys with their careers. Give them an experience.”
The Rochester Americans have signed defenseman Zach Metsa, who last week won a national championship in his fifth season at Quinnipiac, to a two-year AHL contract.
Metsa, 24, has joined the Amerks for the rest of the season on a professional tryout.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Metsa compiled 31 goals and 121 points in 177 career NCAA games. He registered nine goals and 37 points in 40 contests in his final season.
The Wisconsin native earned the ECAC’s Best Defensive Defenseman award in 2021-22 after leading the country with a gaudy plus-38 rating.
The Sabres, who closed the season Friday in Columbus against the Blue Jackets, will hold end-of-year media availability with players today and Sunday. Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams will address the media Monday.