Anders Lindback is a super guy. Really, he is. Folks from Nashville to Tampa Bay to New York City vouch for him. All it takes is one conversation with the goaltender for anyone to be convinced.
It’s a shame, then, that he’s on his way to becoming one of the most reviled Sabres ever.
The second-best stretch of Lindback’s career has Buffalo hockey fans cursing him in the name of Connor McDavid. The goalie stole three points this week that never should have been in Buffalo’s bank. If he keeps it up for the final 12 games, 30th place might become a thing of the past.
At any other time in Sabres history, Lindback would be a triumphant feel-good story. Instead, he’ll enter the crease Friday against New Jersey or Saturday in Nashville with Blue and Gold backers begging for him to fail.
What everyone will see is a guy playing like his life depends on it. That’s not far from the truth.
Two weeks ago, Lindback seemed destined to return to Sweden forever. There are only 60 goaltending jobs in the NHL, and the 26-year-old was about to be bumped out of one. Lindback had an .891 save percentage last year and an .875 this season, numbers that would require his agent to do around-the-clock work just to get a sniff of a contract. The goalie couldn’t even play for the last-place team. He sat on Buffalo’s bench for eight straight games after being acquired Feb. 11 as a throw-in from Dallas in the Jhonas Enroth trade.
Then Chad Johnson got hurt during a morning skate in Ottawa. The injury became the biggest save of Lindback’s life. He’s gone to the crease in Buffalo’s last seven games, putting up a .934 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against average while stopping 32 shots per night.
“I don’t really care about stats,” Lindback said Thursday. “I only care about winning. That’s why you play hockey. You can have the worst save percentage. If you’re winning and playing on a winning team, that’s all that matters.”
Talk like that can get a guy run over by a tank. Lindback is determined to stay ahead of a crushing blow, but even he is aware how unreal his numbers are.
“If you take a couple games here and there, you can always find a high or low percentage in any goalie’s statistics,” he said. “Come back after 20 more games.
“It’s one thing to play good for a little while, and for me I want to be good every night. I want to give the team a chance to win every night. I can’t say I’m still there. I’m trying to get better every day.”
While the top-notch play has seemingly come out of nowhere, it was once expected.
The 6-foot-6 netminder jumped on teams’ radar by becoming a dependable backup to Pekka Rinne in Nashville. During Lindback’s rookie year of 2010-11, he went 11-5-2 with a .915 save percentage. That December, he had a 6-0-1 run with a .949 save percentage and 1.43 goals-against average.
“Pekka Rinne was awesome to me from Day One,” said Lindback, who spent three years in Swedish leagues before joining Rinne in Nasvhille. “He really influenced me both on and off the ice with how hard he works and his goalie style, too.”
Lindback had a solid second season with the Predators (.912 save percentage), but he was never going to unseat Rinne. Tampa Bay gave up two second-round picks and a third-rounder as part of a package to get Lindback before the 2012-13 season.
After an up-and-down start, he suffered an ankle injury with five weeks left in the season. The Lightning acquired Ben Bishop from Ottawa to fill the hole. The goalies entered the 2013-14 season in a competition for the top spot. It was over in a hurry.
Lindback lost as the opening-night starter. Bishop began 5-0 and 13-2, and he finished as a Vezina Trophy finalist. Lindback left last offseason and signed a one-year deal with Dallas, but he quickly ran afoul of Lindy Ruff. The former Sabres coach is notoriously impatient with his goalies. Lindback gave up six goals in his second start, and he made just five more over the next four and a half months.
“I can’t blame him,” Lindback said of Ruff. “My second start there was a really bad game. In this league, you can’t afford to lose and you can’t afford bad goaltending. It’s crucial.
“That’s my job – to try to improve in practices every day and get the trust back.”
Lindback’s work ethic is what finally endeared him to Sabres coach Ted Nolan. The goalie has been a fighter since age 18, when he was diagnosed with adult-onset Still’s disease. The rare condition, developed in less than 1 in 100,000 people per year, is a type of arthritis that is accompanied by a sore throat, rash, joint pain and high fever. It is incurable.
“Since I’ve got on the medicine I’m on now and I’ve been since I was 18, I’ve never had a flare-up,” Lindback said.
About the only thing Lindback has to worry about is playing time. The hot stretch while going to the crease every night has cemented what Lindback has long believed: He’s not wired to be a backup.
“The more games you play, the more comfortable you feel in there,” he said. “When I get to play, I feel somewhat relaxed and I don’t overplay situations. I stay a little calmer in the net than I do when I play every third or second week. It’s like you want it so much and it’s hard to stay composed and just wait for it.”
Lindback will have to wait to see where his future will be. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent, and there have been no talks with the Sabres. Buffalo has only Johnson and minor-leaguer Andrey Makarov under contract for next season.