Late-blooming, mustached goalie Charlie Lindgren carries the Washington Capitals into the playoffs

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Alex Ovechkin scored a lot of goals down the stretch for the Washington Capitals, yet he is not the biggest reason they made the playoffs.

That would be undrafted, unheralded, late-blooming, mustached goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who emerged as the starter and carried the Capitals the second half of the season. No one in the NHL faced more shots or made more saves over the past three months since supplanting Darcy Kuemper for the No. 1 job.

Lindgren's play in net has made him their MVP when it matters most.

“I’ve had a blast," Lindgren said. “I’ve dreamed about this for 20 years, legitimately. And just to have the chance to play a lot of games and just the faith that this team has put in me, I appreciate it greatly.”

Lindgren earned it, finally at age 30, and on Sunday he will make his Stanley Cup playoff debut against brother Ryan and the heavily favored New York Rangers. Game 1 at Madison Square Garden comes less than a week since Minnesota native played on back-to-back nights to get Washington into the postseason.

Go back one further and Lindgren stopped 75 of the 78 shots he faced over a three-game winning streak, coming off a rough performance in Buffalo. Not winning would have sent he and his teammates to the golf course.

“Any adversity that he faces, it’s just like, ‘no big deal, I’m going to figure out a way to get through it,’” coach Spencer Carbery said. “Those are some quality, quality characteristics of a professional hockey player that can really help you. I think that’s been impressive to watch and seeing how all his teammates have rallied around him.”

Fourth-line center Nic Dowd, who overlapped one season with him at St. Cloud State, said Lindgren has become a leader without even knowing it. He noted Lindgren's mustache game has improved, too.

“He’s really taken hold of it,” retired defenseman Karl Alzner said of Lindgren's 'stache, several years since they played together with Montreal and in the minors. “That’s his thing now. He’s channeling the ’80s and ’90s hockey players again.”

Lindgren is a throwback personality off the ice. He talks to reporters on game days, often a no-no for a superstitious goalie, and nothing seems to faze him in the crease.

“I have a lot of faith and confidence in myself, I have a lot of faith and confidence in my teammates, and I think when you’re prepared, that lessens the stress,” Lindgren said. “A lot of it just comes down to experience and confidence."

It would have been easy for Lindgren to lose confidence shuttling between the NHL and American Hockey League into his late 20s. Alzner figured it was hard for teams to see Lindgren as anything more than a backup but believed the Caps were getting a possible gem based on what he had seen in Montreal and AHL Laval.

“He battles harder in practice than a lot of goalies do,” Alzner said this week, praising Lindgren's attitude. “I thought, ‘If this guy can find his confidence again, he’s going to get back to that level.’”

Kuemper is in the second season of a five-year, $26.25 million deal, while Lindgren is making $1.1 million a year through 2024-25. When Kuemper started struggling, rookie head coach Carbery didn't let that sway his thinking of who to put in net.

It has been challenging for Kuemper, who said he's “trying to help Charlie out the best I can whenever he needs help with anything. I’ve gone through these experiences, so I try to share those with him and help him along the way.”

Lindgren after beating Boston on Monday night made a point to thank Kuemper for handling the situation “like an absolute pro” and always being in his corner. Plenty of people are in his corner now, even as his family will have split rooting interests in the first round, but he's already won over the Capitals for everything he has done to let them continue playing hockey.

“His work ethic — not only in games but in practice as well, off the ice — is definitely noticed,” veteran winger T.J. Oshie said. "To see all that work be rewarded is awesome. You’re always cheering on your teammates and wanting the best for them. Anyone that knows Chuckie or meets him, or even comes to the game and watches how hard he battles in there, it’s hard not to root for that guy.”



Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press