Carter Hart was 16 years old, still in his first full season of major-junior hockey, still at the stage of life when just the thought of shaving was enough to prick his face, when he delivered a declaration that his new team was happy to test. The Everett (Wash.) Silvertips were a month into the 2014-15 Western Hockey League season, and Garry Davidson, their general manager, wanted to gauge Hart’s comfort with his surroundings, his play, and the demanding travel and lifestyle. So Davidson asked him to come to his office for a heart-to-Hart talk.
“He said to me, and not in a cocky or over-the-top way, ‘I believe I’m the best goalie here, and I’m going to show you that,’” Davidson said Tuesday afternoon in a phone interview. “He went on to do that.”
It was how Hart did it that carries such significance for the Flyers now, for their hopes to complete what would be a remarkable comeback and qualify for the playoffs. He has been the reason the Flyers can speak realistically of making a postseason push, his excellence papering over so many breakdowns and space-outs by the teammates in front of him, and maybe Tuesday night was just the sort of night any 20-year-old rookie goaltender, even one as brilliant as Hart, was due to have.
He gave up three goals in nine shots to the Tampa Bay Lightning, to the NHL’s best and highest-scoring team, in a 5-2 loss: a shot by Mikhail Sergachev that deflected off Shayne Gostisbehere’s left skate, a power-play goal in close by Alex Killorn, a two-on-one wrist shot by J.T. Miller. Hart lasted little more than 10 minutes before interim coach Scott Gordon removed him from the game, inserted Brian Elliott, and bent down for a whispered pep talk into Hart’s ear.
“He said, ‘It’s not all on you,’” Hart said. “But three goals in nine shots – some of it’s on me, too. It [stinks], you know? But you put it behind you.”
Each of those goals would have required a good-to-terrific save to prevent. Yet everyone already has gotten so accustomed to watching Hart pull off such tricks that it was stunning to see him struggle, and a game like this only reaffirmed how much he has meant to the Flyers – and how much they’ll have to lean on him just to keep the playoffs in sight.
They’re six points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot, and they are that close only because they had gone 10-1-1 in Hart’s previous 12 games, only because they had begun relying on him as if he were a longtime franchise cornerstone. Tuesday’s his 13th start in the Flyers’ last 16 games. Extrapolate that rate over a full regular-season schedule, and Hart would play 67 games. No NHL goaltender appeared in more last season, and only one, Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury, is on pace to appear in more this season.
So much for the caution that compelled Ron Hextall and Chuck Fletcher to warn against rushing Hart to the NHL before an injury to Anthony Stolarz left the Flyers no choice but to call the kid up. Now, Gordon and goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh have compiled a tentative schedule of when and how often Hart will play over the season’s final 22 games, predicated on the knowledge that neither Elliott nor Cam Talbot has the same chance of rescuing the season, that the Flyers have three sets of back-to-back games left, that they will have enough days off to give Hart adequate rest.
There were often no such luxuries for him with the Silvertips. Over his four years in Everett, Hart appeared in 63 games, during a 78-game season, in 2015-16 and 54 games in 2016-17, and he often started three consecutive games over a weekend – Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon – with a 4- or 5-hour, late-night bus ride to boot. “We did it too many times, I know that,” Davidson said. “We played the quote-unquote hell out of him.” And if he wasn’t quite as sharp in that Sunday game, who would have expected him to be?
“He is so mentally grounded, so well prepared day in and day out,” Davidson said. “I was worried that maybe the circumstances he was being thrown into [with the Flyers] were too soon. I didn’t want to see him have a setback, being around him for a number of years here. But am I surprised with what he’s done? No, I don’t think I am. That’s just Carter.”