PITTSBURGH – The game was long over, but a small crowd remained.
Craig Anderson had a hug for everyone as he made his way through the stands at PPG Paints Arena late Saturday night, greeting the family and friends who had just watched him stop 27 shots while helping the Ottawa Senators win Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Among the group were his wife, Nicholle, and boys, Jake and Levi, who had made the trip in as well.
The family, finally, was back together in one place again.
“It was exciting,” Anderson said Sunday. “I think they’re bringing definitely an X-factor to the game for me. It’s an exciting time. I hadn’t seen the kids in awhile, they hadn’t seen me play in awhile. They always see me on TV, but to be there live again was great for them.
The hockey world is familiar with the family’s story by now, but many probably don’t realize that Nicholle’s cancer battle has kept them apart. She recently completed a second round of chemotherapy in Florida, according to her blog, after doing the first round in New Jersey while Craig was on personal leave from the Senators.
He returned to the team in early February and has remained with it ever since, helping Ottawa reach the conference final for the first time in a decade.
The couple have relied on frequent FaceTime conversations to bridge the distance during that stretch and Nicholle travelled to Boston for Game 6 when the Senators eliminated the Bruins earlier in the playoffs.
With this third-round series opening in Pittsburgh – across the state from where she was raised – and Mother’s Day falling on the off-day between Games 1 and 2, it was the perfect time to be able to bring everyone back together.
“Mother’s Day is always special,” said Craig Anderson. “We wouldn’t be here if not for our mothers and I know my kids wouldn’t be the same without their mother.”
That he played so well in Saturday’s opener against the Penguins had to come with a little extra measure of satisfaction.
It’s not unlike how teammate Bobby Ryan saw something symbolic in scoring the overtime winner on the eve of a Mother’s Day full of mixed emotions for him – the first since the death of his mom, Melody Stevenson, last summer and the first since his wife Danielle gave birth to daughter Riley.
“It’s almost poetic,” said Ryan. “It’s my first without being able to text my mom, but I woke up this morning and was able to text my wife because it was hers. You take the good with the bad on days like today.”
It has been a heavy year around the Senators. A heavy couple years, really, when you consider former general manager Bryan Murray’s colon cancer diagnosis and owner Eugene Melnyk’s liver transplant and the death of assistant coach Mark Reeds in April 2015.
Craig Anderson first left the team in training camp after Nicholle miscarried a baby girl at 16 weeks. Not too long after that, she was experiencing congestion and had a biopsy which revealed nasopharyngeal carcinoma – a rare form of neck and head cancer.
He took a leave of absence that lasted two months.
The 35-year-old goaltender has largely avoided discussing the situation with reporters, but touched on it in March after being nominated as a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Despite what his family has dealt with and continues to deal with, he’s somehow managed to have arguably his finest NHL season. He’s never played this deep into the playoffs.
“It’s always on the mind,” Anderson said of Nicholle’s cancer battle in March. “I feel that the three hours we get at the rink is definitely a time to kind of put things aside and exert your energy and frustration out that you may have.
“You just go out there and give everything you can then when you take off the equipment then you can address real-world problems right after that.”
During that interview, Anderson also credited Nicholle’s fortitude.
“It’s definitely been hard on her and our family,” he said. “It’s one of those things where when times get tough you find strength – inner strength – that you maybe didn’t believe you had.”
Even as the Senators continue pushing for a Stanley Cup berth, his mind is bound to be in two places at times. Nicholle wrote in her most recent blog entry that she is scheduled to have a PET scan later this month to determine if the cancer remains.
In the meantime, in the moment, the family is back together.
On this Mother’s Day that may be the best of news of all.