BUFFALO – After center Casey Mittelstadt scored 78 second into Thursday’s overtime, securing a storybook 4-3 victory in Craig Anderson’s final NHL game, the Sabres immediately skated down the ice and mobbed the veteran goalie.
What played out over the next 10 minutes was one of the most emotional scenes you’ll ever watch in a hockey rink.
Every teammate embraced Anderson, 41, on the KeyBank Center ice. When they finished, members of the Ottawa Senators, the team he starred for over 10 seasons, congratulated him on the end of his decorated 20-year career.
Then Anderson, the NHL’s oldest player, shared a few special moments with his wife, Nicholle, and sons, Jake and Levi, in the Zamboni entrance.
Fans chanted “Andy, Andy.” Anderson saluted the crowd. The Sabres posed for a special team photo.
After that Anderson, having earned his 319th NHL win in his 709th game, left the ice for the final time.
Moments later in the dressing room, he officially announced what everyone already knew, he will be retiring.
“This is it,” Anderson told a throng of reporters following the home finale.
That the Sabres won in dramatic fashion made the night a little more perfect.
“You couldn’t write a better story,” said Anderson, who made 30 saves.
Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said “you don’t get to write your own ending very often.”
“Especially in this sport,” said an emotional Okposo. “We wanted that one for him. Just an incredible scene. We’ve had a few of these kind of nights over the last couple years, and this one was right at the top of the list. I’m just so happy for him and what he’s done and how he is as a person. How he carries himself every day. The leadership he provides, the perspective that he provides, it’s been incredible to play with him.”
Sabres coach Don Granato said: “What a night to have it work out the way it did.”
Despite limited playing time over his two years with the Sabres – he has taken a backup role, and Thursday was just 26th game this season – Anderson has been at the forefront of the their revival.
While the Sabres will miss the playoffs for an NHL-record 12th straight season, they stayed in contention for a spot until Tuesday, their 80th game.
“Guys are starting to believe in what they can do,” Anderson said of the team’s growth. “When I first got here everyone was kind of unsure of where we were going and what we were doing. Donny and Kevyn (Adams) have put together a road map and players have stepped in and understood what that road map was. We put ourselves in a situation where we’re ready to take leaps and bounds now from where we are at.”
On Thursday, the Sabres jumped out to a 2-0 lead, getting goals from defenseman Henri Jokiharju and winger Victor Olofsson early in the second period.
The Senators, however, roared back, tying it before the period ended.
Tim Stutzle scored a power-play goal at 4:27 before Dylan Gambrell tied it at 6:11. Then Claude Giroux put them up at 12:36.
While Giroux clearly kicked the puck in the net, the goal counted.
Then Sabres center Tage Thompson’s power-play goal tied the game 3:03 into he third period.
Anderson, who had missed 10 straight games recovering from an upper-body injury, slammed the door in the third period, stopping all 10 shots he faced.
“They felt an obligation to Andy,” Granato said. “He hasn’t played in three weeks or so and that is not easy to jump into a game after three weeks. In the third period I thought he looked better than at any point and he needed to be.
“He was key in the third, especially the last couple of minutes. That was great to see him rise there.”
The stage was set for a memorable finish before the crowd of 16,739 fans.
“He’s just the best, he’s a great guy,” Sabres winger Alex Tuch said of Anderson. “We connected from Day One. Love going out to eat with that guy, I love playing with that guy. Being around him is great. It was great to get a win for him, in overtime, against the Senators. It’s a little bit of a storybook ending for him.”