Charlie Lindgren’s arrival at 30 has made Capitals NHL’s unlikeliest playoff contender

About as surprising as finding the Washington Capitals in playoff position in late March is the goalie who’s led them here.

Undrafted Charlie Lindgren is having a career year eight seasons into a pro career that’s seen him mostly in AHL rinks — his persistence and patience finally leading to a breakout at age 30.

“I just feel ready for the moment,” Lindgren told The Athletic during a recent interview.

“Last year was his first full year in the NHL,” said Caps goalie coach Scott Murray. “He also had some minutes with St. Louis and Montreal, but I think last year being in Washington the full year, he came back this year with a mindset that whatever challenges came his way, he was going to stare them in the face. That’s probably the biggest consistency from him, is that he’s embraced challenges whatever they are.”

Having that first full NHL season last year was absolutely a major step in Lindgren’s career, and sure he was the traditional backup to veteran starter Darcy Kuemper, but for once he wasn’t yo-yo’d between the big show and the AHL.

That settled him.

“It definitely gave you some peace for sure,” Lindgren said. “I was so used to the up and down and up and down. You get no stability that way. Obviously, I understand the nature of the game. You’ve got to start in the minors and work your way up. But to have my first full season up in the NHL last year, I learned a lot. I learned a lot from Scott (Murray). I learned a lot from Darcy Kuemper, who obviously has a wealth of experience.”

When new head coach Spencer Carbery called last summer as he made the rounds to get to know his players, Lindgren had something to share.

“I said to him, ‘Last year was me kind of getting the foot in the door. This year I want to blow the door down,’” Lindgren recalled.

Added the Caps goalie with a humble grin: “It’s been an awesome year.”

They haven’t all been artistic gems, but probably most noteworthy is how Lindgren has been able to shake off the tougher games. There’s been a mental hardening that’s at the heart of this.

“He understands, and maybe it’s because he’s been in the American League and he’s worked so hard to get to this level, is that he doesn’t take one day for granted,” said Murray. “Combine that with being willing to stare challenges right in the face. I think those two mental pieces for him have been huge.”

Charlie Lindgren and T.J. Oshie celebrate a win over the Blues. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

Has there been a technical adjustment to his game in Washington?

“The one thing he’s done a really good job evolving in his game is being connected with his stance and with his structure,” Murray said. “He’s a competitive goalie and he’ll do anything to make a save. And that competitiveness is still there. He’s just found a way to control that and, more times than not, have his entire body behind the puck, versus just a limb, and so just that’s the one thing over his career. And we’ve trained to maintain his good position and trying to have your body work together so it’s filling up more space when a guy is shooting the puck.”

Still, how is this all happening at the age of 30?

Is it opportunity? Or getting to a place mentally where he’s ready for it?

“I think it’s a mixture of both,” said Lindgren, a native of Lakeville, Minn. “First thing is opportunity. I’m getting a chance now to play a lot of games in a row. That’s been amazing. It helps a lot. Any goalie will tell you, it’s easier to play four, five games in a row than play once every two, three weeks. You can get in a rhythm that way. And also, I’m 30 years old now — definitely more mature. Experience always helps. That can be one of the most important traits to success.”

Three years ago, Lindgren wasn’t sure where his pro career was headed. At 27, he had hit rock bottom in the Habs organization and was desperate for a lifeline.

“When I left Montreal to go to St. Louis, I really needed a fresh start,” he said. “Things started to get stale in Montreal. I was coming off that taxi squad year (during the pandemic when teams carried three goalies) where all I did was push myself; that was it. I didn’t really have any coaching or any help. It was up to me. I had to choose: Do I want to be the best Charlie Lindgren I can be, or do I want to sit and pout and be upset about my situation?

“I really took it in my own hands and tried to work as hard as I could in that taxi squad year.”

As fun and exciting as his career began with the Canadiens organization, including a 14-game stretch in Montreal in 2017-18 that put him on the map, it ended up souring.

“Those last couple of years in Montreal, there were times where I was just not really enjoying myself at all,” he said. “You start to question, Is there a path for me? How am I going to get to where I want to get to? I needed to play, too. I wasn’t able to play much there. So yeah, there was certainly some doubt.”

A one-year, two-way deal in July 2021 with the Blues, which paid him the NHL minimum $750,000 in St. Louis and $300,000 in the AHL, turned out to be the salvation moment.

“I got a chance to sign in St. Louis and play in Springfield on a really good American League team,” Lindgren said. “We had a lot of wins and got to play with Joel Hofer who I think the world of, and we got to have a run to the Calder Cup finals.”

He didn’t get much of a look up top, but when he did get an NHL call-up, all Lindgren did was go 5-0 with a .958 save percentage. Ho-hum.

It’s also when Lindgren changed his mindset.

“I was so consumed with wanting to be the best goalie in the world. That was my mindset,” he said. “I think my mindset changed to where I want to be the best Charlie Lindgren I can be. Because at the end of the day, that’s really all you can control. And a lot of that comes down to just your effort and the attitude you put into every single day. I think just having that mindset really helped me out.”

That first NHL game for the Blues in December 2021 came a year and a half from his last NHL appearance for the Habs in March 2020. It felt like an eternity. The emotion almost overcame him that night in St. Louis.

“Because you didn’t know if it was going to come. You weren’t sure,” he said.

His brief run in St. Louis and terrific year in Springfield (.925 save percentage) revived him.

“Getting that opportunity again, it showed that, ‘Hey, I can do it,’” he said.

And that grabbed Washington’s attention. The Caps were looking for a backup in July 2022 after revamping their NHL goaltending, bringing in Kuemper on a big contract and parting ways with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.

They signed Lindgren to a three-year deal worth $1.1 million a season. It’s turned out to be a rather savvy deal.

“Really liked his character and competitiveness,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said when asked last week why he remembers the Caps wanting to sign Lindgren.

“For me, it was some security,” Lindgren said. “I love the D.C. area. I couldn’t be happier. My wife loves it there. It’s just a really comfortable place to be.”

Comfortable wasn’t always the objective, though. When a 22-year-old Lindgren wrapped up his college career at St. Cloud State in March 2016, he had several NHL suitors as a college free agent, but he chose to sign in pressure-packed Montreal, which happened to have future Hockey Hall of Fame netminder Carey Price in net.

His agent Ben Hankinson remembers thinking, again, because there were other NHL options, “Are you sure that’s where you want to sign?”

Yup, said Lindgren.

“I wasn’t scared of the market,” Lindgren said. “It was a market that I was really looking forward to being part of. But as far as the Carey Price situation, I almost looked at it like a Jimmy Garoppolo situation (Tom Brady) or an Aaron Rodgers situation (Brett Favre). You know he’s the guy, but I’m going to go in and learn from the best to do it. And I mean, still to this day, having the chance to be around Carey as much as I did, I learned so much from him. He was so good for my game. And not just on the ice, but off the ice, how he handled all the pressure.

“When he left the rink, he got away from the game. I think that’s so important, especially in Montreal.”

The journey has brought Lindgren perspective, which includes appreciating how special it is that he not only has a younger brother also playing in the NHL but that Ryan Lindgren patrols the blue line for the rival New York Rangers in his own division.

“I think the world of my brother,” Charlie said. “I admire how he plays. He doesn’t make friends out on the ice. He plays hard. I know his teammates appreciate that. I’m sure his coaches appreciate that. He’s not afraid to put his body in harm’s way. I’m sure Igor (Shesterkin) and (Jonathan) Quick probably love when he’s out there.”

And that leads to an appreciation thought for Mom and Dad.

“I couldn’t thank my parents more for giving us every single opportunity to succeed,” Lindgren said.

It’s all here in front of him now, Charlie Lindgren is living his best NHL life at 30. The road has been far from smooth, to be sure, and there are no guarantees of what lies ahead. But he’s a great example of never giving up.

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Charlie Lindgren is 21-13-6 with a 2.71 goals-against average, a .911 save percentage and five shutouts in 2023-24. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

There’s symmetry with what 31-year-old Alex Lyon has fashioned over the past year in Florida and now Detroit — another longtime AHLer who has kicked in his NHL door.

Yes, as Martin Brodeur told us recently, never before has the goalie position been so unpredictable and volatile. But the flip side is surprising, feel-good stories like Lyon and Lindgren.

“I don’t really know Alex Lyon on a personal level, but I played against him in the American League,” Lindgren said. “I always know if he got a solid chance that he would have the ability to go out and win games in the National Hockey League.

“I think it just goes to show that there are a lot of really good goaltenders out there and a lot of them just need a chance. And when they get that chance, they got to make the most of it.”

Lindgren paused and added this layer.

“Sometimes, maybe goalies get called up when they’re too young and they’re too nervous,” he said. “That’s part of it. There’s a lot of goalies out there that have the skill and the talent, but you got to have the mind, too, to go with it, and the maturity.”

(Top photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

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