Crouching low to guard his right post, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback looked back incredulously at the puck behind him in the net.
It was an innocent shot. It actually looked more like a pass attempt from Sean Couturier that somehow squeaked through whatever minuscule opening Lindback left unprotected. It was the softest of soft goals that opened the scoring 59 seconds into Sunday's game against Philadelphia.
It was an unwelcomed reminder of a year ago – a bad goal allowed on the first shot of the game.
But for the remaining 59 minutes, Lindback sealed things up and didn't allow another goal in a 5-1 Tampa Bay victory.
"You see that goal, and it's something that shouldn't go in, and then right after he made some crazy saves,'' Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said of Lindback. "And just like previous games, at some point he just shuts the door. And that's the mark of great goaltenders.''
Heading into this season, the Lightning wanted to see if Lindback had the makeup to be a No. 1 goaltender. Team officials knew the physical tools were there – Lindback is an athletic 6-foot-6 – but the question was whether he has the mental makeup. After all, he entered the season with only 38 games of NHL experience while getting only spot starts in Nashville for two seasons.
But heading into Tuesday's scheduled start against Florida, his fifth start in six games to open the season, Lindback has faced more than a few tests in the early stages of the season. At times when it looked like the 24-year-old might wilt under the heat, he stood tall.
Sunday was just one example, letting in a bad goal on the first shot but holding firm the rest of the game.
On Jan. 21 in Long Island, after Tampa Bay fell behind 4-0 on an early third-period goal, Lindback made several tremendous saves on a handful of odd-man rushes that gave the Lightning a chance to get back in the game before losing 4-3. On Friday against Ottawa, a four-goal second period by the Senators put the Lightning behind, but Lindback allowed Tampa Bay to rally in the third for a 6-4 victory by keeping Ottawa off the board in the final frame.
At this point he appears to have a trait shared by many great netminders – the ability to focus on what's ahead of him instead of dwelling on something that can't be undone.
"It's about not getting caught repeating it over in your head all over again and start hesitating,'' said Lindback, who is 3-1 with a 3.00 goals against average and .911 save percentage. "I have to forget about it, just like every goal that I give up. You just quickly see what happened, see what to do next time and then let it go and focus on the puck.''
Four games is hardly a large enough of sample size to anoint Lindback as a bona fide No. 1 goaltender, and he will continue to be tested not only in how stops pucks but how he reacts when he doesn't and how he does from game-to-game and week-to-week. Thus far, the Lightning like the early returns, especially the mental aspects of handling the role.
"He's got the number one quality of a good goaltender, that's closing the door when it's time. And he's done that and he's kept us in the game,'' Boucher said. "He's made key saves at the right time.''
Seeing Lindback respond to some adversity as he has allows his teammates to gain confidence in him, which in turn helps Lindback grow more confident in his own game.
"It could have been easy for him to fold up the tent after that first one goes in (Sunday) and be shaky,'' center Steven Stamkos said. "When you are on the bench and you see him make a big save after he lets in a fluky one, you say this guy is ready to bounce back and that's not going to happen again.''
The ability to not get rattled can be developed over time through experience, according to veteran netminder Mathieu Garon. But Lindback already has shown it's going to take more than what he has faced so far to knock him off his game.
"All the games, even close games, he's been able at the end – whether it was in Long Island, the game against Ottawa or (Sunday) – in a tight game in the third he makes the big saves,'' Garon said. "That's what a team needs, a goalie that makes the big saves at the right time and that always gives the rest of the guys a good boost.''
For Lindback, he's just trying to do his job any way he can and block out everything else.
"It's my job to stay focused at all times, no matter what the score is to keep the puck out of the net,'' Lindback said. "You know the next save is so important because we can always come back.''