We’ve had our share of false saviors in this town – with most of them standing shakily between the pipes down at the Wells Fargo Center.
For more than 30 seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers have searched for a first-rate goalie to carry them to the Stanley Cup. Mostly, they skated out a collection of head cases, has-beens and underachievers. From Ken Wregget to Roman Cechmanek to Ilya Bryzgalov, there were always early moments of brilliance and anticipation – followed by the crushing reality that the guy had a five-hole larger than a Zamboni or the stability of Mites on Ice.
But now . . .
Well, now there is a legitimate reason to believe the drought that has existed since Ron Hextall v.1 (1986-87) might finally be over. And the savior is a graceful 20-year-old who seems to have no need yet for a razor but is already confounding the NHL’s best shooters.
Rookie Carter Hart has led the Flyers on their heady seven-game winning streak. He was just named the NHL’s top rookie for January, during which he topped the league in saves and posted a 2.33 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Watch Hart for a few games and you quickly see what’s behind those impressive early stats. He’s fundamentally sound – always in position and squared up to the shooter. He’s quick to his feet and displays great reflexes. And his concentration is outstanding.
Flyers TV reporter Taryn Hatcher told a story the other day of how Hart keeps his focus during time-outs by squirting his water bottle into the air, espying a single droplet, following it down to the ice and staring at it until it freezes. It’s a neat trick, and it shows how the kid is mature enough not to be sidetracked by the crowd, the lights or the moment.
Earlier this season, Flyers GM Ron Hextall balked at promoting Hart from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms out of concern he was rushing the phenom. Hextall, of course, got fired at Thanksgiving and it took injuries to five other goalies for Hart to get the call-up.
Soon after that, the Flyers also shoved out their sleep-walking coach, Dave Hakstol, replacing him with Scott Gordon. And things have clicked. The team that was in absolute last place has moved ahead of five other clubs and is now seven points out of a playoff spot. It is nothing to brag about, but certainly an improvement.
There are many factors in this seven-game streak. Gordon made strategic moves with the power play and neutral-zone forecheck that are showing results. Defenseman Ivan Provorov rebounded after a desultory first half of the season, while other young players like Travis Sanheim and Nolan Patrick appear to be coming on.
However, it’s easy to see the biggest reason. Any hockey player will tell you how disheartening it is to play in front of a shaky goaltender. Conversely, a talent like Hart can inspire everyone.
“He’s calm back there,” captain Claude Giroux said last week. “He’s confident. He gives us momentum.”
Certainly, this is lofty praise for someone who was riding Junior Hockey buses around Western Canada a year ago. It’s foolish to believe Hart is a panacea for all of the Flyers’ shortcomings.
It’s equally foolish to believe he’s on a straight arc to stardom. The history of every sport shows that competitors quickly learn a young star’s weaknesses. The burden is then on him to adjust.
That said, Hart does not resemble the parade of frauds preceding him in orange and black. He’s smart, talented and driven. The Flyers have drafted 23 goalies since 2001. It says here that they finally got one right.