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How Charlie Lindgren emerged to help the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Vaseline 4 weeks ago

When Charlie Lindgren signed with the Washington Capitals in July 2022, no one envisioned this moment. Somewhere between playing second fiddle and being an afterthought, Lindgren received a three-year contract worth $3.3 million that was announced the same day as the big splash: a five-year contract worth $26.25 million for fellow goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who had only just won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche.

There was no expectation that Lindgren would come to Washington to be anything other than Kuemper’s backup. And that’s how it went last season. Kuemper started 56 games to Lindgren’s 26 and led the Capitals’ goaltending tandem in every statistical category.

In his first full season in the NHL, Lindgren established himself as a serviceable backup to his veteran partner with a Cup-winning pedigree. In his second full season in the NHL, Lindgren took things to another level.

“He might have been our MVP,” coach Spencer Carbery said Tuesday after Lindgren backed the Capitals in two must-win games to get them into the playoffs. “He’s been fantastic all year.”

When Washington takes the ice at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon for Game 1 against the New York Rangers, there will be no doubt about which goaltender is expected to lead the Capitals out of the tunnel. It should be the unflappable No. 79, with the mustache peeking out from under his mask, who gets the nod between the pipes — after being a big part of the reason Washington is even allowed on the ice for a playoff game.

Lindgren played 50 games for the Capitals this season, more games than he has played since the 2017-18 season, when he played 14 games for the Montreal Canadiens and 37 for Laval of the American Hockey League. After sharing time with Kuemper early in the season, Lindgren emerged as the go-to starter midway through. At times, his performances were the only thing keeping Washington afloat in the playoff race.

Lindgren’s six shutouts tied the NHL lead, and his .911 save percentage and 2.67 goals against average improved significantly from his stats from last season (.899 and 3.05).

“I had a blast,” Lindgren, 30, said this past week. “I’ve been dreaming about this for twenty years, legitimately. And just to get the opportunity to play a lot of games and the trust that this team has put in me, I really appreciate it. I’ve had a blast this whole season.”

Lindgren did not follow a linear path to becoming an NHL regular. He played three seasons at St. Cloud State and signed with the Canadiens as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He made his NHL debut that spring, but aside from the fourteen games he played for Montreal in 2017-18, he never saw more than six games of NHL action in a season during his five years with the organization.

“I remember all the guys in Montreal saying, ‘Wait until you see this guy play; he’s so good,” said former Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, who played with Lindgren at Laval from 2018 to 2020. “He was playing great and then all of a sudden he lost a little bit of confidence, and it changed a little bit. part of his journey.”

Lindgren signed with the St. Louis Blues in 2021 and rebuilt his game there, showing enough in a five-game NHL stint to earn his contract with the Capitals. Alzner and Lindgren — and their wives, Mandy and Mikkayla — became close in Laval, so when Lindgren signed with Washington, Alzner, who moved back to the D.C. area after his playing career ended, was thrilled.

He enjoys even more watching how Lindgren has played this year.

“I don’t think a lot of people would think they’d see him in the position he’s in, but it was pretty cool that he took the reins,” Alzner said. “…He just fought so damn hard. I think it’s like when you see teams that go through serious adversity and then playoffs come along and eventually they just figure it out and they’re a great team versus the one that just kind of slides through the season all the time and then all of a sudden they get face adversity in the play-offs and can’t figure it out. I think that’s Charlie.”

When Lindgren’s teammates and coaches talk about what made his success possible this year, his work ethic is always at the top of the list. That same work ethic kept him going, even if his NHL future didn’t always look bright.

“He has taken his lumps over the years and been in more difficult situations. But through it all, I think he’s just had a really strong belief in himself and what he can do and how he can play this position,” said Lindgren’s father, Bob. “He’s just kind of stuck there. … He sticks with it. He could have said it a few years ago, when things weren’t easy for him. But he didn’t. He just kept rolling and kept working on it.”

‘The best I’ve ever felt’

As Lindgren began preparing for his first appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the typically nonchalant netminder remained as determined as he has been all year. Goalkeepers are known to be superstitious – almost squirrely at this time of year – but Lindgren ignores these trends.

“This is the best I’ve ever felt – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, everything,” Lindgren said. “I’m just in a really, really good place on and off the ice, and I think that goes back to the way I’ve been preparing my whole life. This is what I have worked hard for.”

The calm, steady and competitive way in which Lindgren approaches every training session and every match has filtered down to the Capitals, who have come to rely on him as an emotional focal point. When Lindgren is playing, everyone around him draws confidence – and he has been on his game for the vast majority of the season.

“I think without even knowing it, he’s become a leader in this group,” said Capitals center Nic Dowd, who also played with Lindgren at St. Cloud State. “At any time, when you have goaltending who is playing really, really well, as he has done for most of the season, your team has a lot of confidence to go out there and play calm and loose. Honestly, I’ve said it a few times: our team, (if) we score one goal, I feel like we can win a hockey game.

Even the thought of working with his youngest brother, Ryan, a defenseman for the Rangers, had no effect on Lindgren’s outward calm. After acknowledging the stress levels that will surely be high for his parents and middle brother, Andrew, and the emotions of a postseason family gathering, Lindgren quickly refocused on the message he wanted to convey.

“It’s not me versus my brother. It’s the Capitals versus the Rangers, and I care so much about this team and this organization,” Lindgren said. “I don’t want to talk about anything else. I just want to focus on Game 1 against the Rangers and put everything I can into this Capitals organization.”