MONTREAL — Think about the road a goaltender needs to travel to not only make it to the NHL, but to stay there. Jobs are so limited, the competition is so fierce, and so many things need to fall into place just to get an opportunity, let alone keep it.
On Saturday, three goaltenders who have yet to establish themselves as NHL regulars allowed goals in a 4-3 overtime win for the Montreal Canadiens over the Carolina Hurricanes. Twenty-seven-year-old Anton Forsberg, who started for the Hurricanes, was pulled after three of 20 shots he faced found the back of the net. Alex Nedeljkovic, a second-round pick in 2014, relieved him and stopped all 18 shots he saw before Jeff Petry ripped one into the top corner to win the game for Montreal in overtime. And Charlie Lindgren, playing in just his fifth game for the Canadiens this season, made 27 saves for just his second win of this campaign.
Since Forsberg was taken 188th overall in 2011, he has played a total of 47 NHL games split between the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Hurricanes. And Nedeljkovic, who was named the OHL’s best goaltender just weeks before he was drafted by Carolina, has since appeared in three-and-a-half NHL games versus 15 ECHL games and 153 AHL games.
Neither player has recorded a win since both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer went down in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22, so it’s safe to say neither is in the process of taking advantage of the biggest opportunity of their respective careers.
But Lindgren, a veteran of 22 NHL games and 134 in the AHL? He knows there will be no better chance to prove what he hasn’t been able to prove since he signed with the Canadiens in the spring of 2016, and he’s off to a good start.
It’s a chance he wouldn’t have had if Montreal hadn’t thrown in the towel on backup Keith Kinkaid after just six appearances this season; if the Canadiens weren’t fearful of throwing Cayden Primeau to the wolves in his first professional season; if Michael McNiven had a bit more professional experience. Most certainly, it’s a chance Lindgren wouldn’t have had so soon if the team hadn’t blown the last of several games they’ve led of late — a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday that all but extinguished their playoff hopes and made it imperative to give Carey Price (who started 55 of 66 games, 11 straight and 17 of the last 18) some rest from here to the end of the season.
Starting on Saturday, Lindgren was being given a chance to show once and for all he can be Price’s backup, and it’s one he isn’t taking for granted.
“I’ll just be honest, there’s not a doubt in my mind I can be the guy for that,” he said after he was given the team-awarded Game of Thrones sword for his performance. “People asked me the last few days, but I have no intention of being the No. 3 guy again. I want to be the No. 2. I’m going to continue working hard to be that, and I know I’ve got to earn it. Just any time I’m on the ice, I’ve got to play like a true NHL goalie.”
Playing like a true NHL goalie started with 11 strong saves behind a Canadiens team that took a 1-0 lead on Phillip Danault’s goal.
But this performance — which should propel Lindgren just a bit further down his path — was really about how he responded to allowing two goals from 60 feet away, and how he came up with his best save of the night on Andrei Svechnikov.
It came after Justin Williams had tied the game at 3-3 with an unstoppable high-slot tip, and with just one second remaining in regulation, Svechnikov barrelled his way through the slot, juked to his left and let go of a well-placed wrist shot that Lindgren snagged with his glove.
It was the last big save he made, but certainly not the only one. There were the two on Vincent Trochek, the one on Sebastian Aho, and the other two on Svechnikov after he had allowed a floating wrist shot from Joel Edmundson to beat him on the glove side for the goal that reduced Montreal’s lead to 3-2 with just under 19 minutes to play in the third period.
Lindgren’s bounce-back surprised everyone but his teammates.
“He’s the hardest-working guy in practice, without question,” said Petry. “That’s what Charlie does. He just battles out there.”
It’s been a battle for Lindgren from the start in Montreal.
He was a highly-coveted free agent after a stellar junior year at St. Cloud State University. He signed with the Canadiens and immediately earned his first win with a 26-save performance against the Hurricanes. He followed it up with wins in his only two starts the next season. He proved excellent in spot duty for an injured Price in 2017-18, but not strong enough for them to give him a chance ahead of Antti Niemi the following year. And he struggled over the 2018-19 season, with a hip injury, and an ankle injury, and with stopping the puck consistently en route to posting just 11 wins and a not-so-sparkling .884 save percentage in 33 games with AHL Laval.
Even this season, Lindgren was 7-6-2 with an .893 save percentage in 16 games with the Rocket before his recall to Montreal.
But now it’s much more so about the road he’s on rather than the one he’s traveled.
“You guys know where I’m at,” the Lakeville, Minn., native said. “I can’t take a single day for granted, and I have no reason to not come to practice every single day and not be the hardest-working guy on the ice. That’s just what I gotta do, and that’s what I’ve always done. A lot of people honestly probably didn’t expect me to be here, but it doesn’t matter to me. I think I’m always going to keep pushing.”
Lindgren’s now won his last two starts, which is one more than any other backup goaltender has won in Montreal this season. And there’s potential for him to play and win a few more of the 15 the Canadiens have left.
“I’m pretty sure you’re going to see him again,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “The goal is not to ride Pricer into the ground. The goal is obviously, as you saw tonight, to give Charlie an opportunity to play here. And if he plays well, then why not?”
There are no guarantees it’ll stop the Canadiens from signing another player in the off-season. But Lindgren, who’s under contract for one more season at $750,000, can at least force them to consider him in the battle at next year’s training camp, or he can prove to other NHL teams that he’s worth taking a chance on.
Either way, you can’t help but admire his view on the journey.
“A lot of people would be pretty jealous to be in the situation that I’m in,” Lindgren said. “I feel lucky, and you gotta keep on cherishing it every day.”