Worrying about goaltending is second nature for fans of the Philadelphia Flyers. For decades, there have only been a handful of times when it wasn’t a concern.
In the Dead Puck Era of the early 2000s, Roman Cechmanek put up some good numbers. He even finished second to the legendary Dominik Hasek in the 2001 Vezina Trophy voting.
In 163 games over three seasons with the Flyers, Cechmanek averaged 1.96 goals against and had a .926 save percentage, with a whopping 20 shutouts. But those numbers didn’t translate in the postseason. The Flyers managed just one series win in those three years.
For better memories, fans still need to go back to Ron Hextall, who won a Vezina and a Conn Smythe trophy as the Flyers came oh-so-close to toppling the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers in 1987. And the real long-timers can laud Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie Parent and his back-to-back Cups with the Broad Street Bullies, now nearly 50 years ago.
In December of 2018, Carter Hart’s arrival as a 20-year-old phenom gave everyone a chance to exhale. Hart defied the conventional wisdom that goaltenders need seasoning at the pro level before stepping into the NHL, especially in a starting role. His calm demeanor and strong technical game brought immediate hope to the fanbase.
But so far this season, Hart hasn’t lived up to the high standard that he has set for himself. On Tuesday, he was pulled by coach Alain Vigneault for the third time in 15 starts, after allowing three first-period goals by the Buffalo Sabres on just eight shots.
Asked after the game if he’s battling any technical issues in his game, the always-accountable Hart broke things down to their most straightforward level.
“I’m just trying to stop the puck,” he said, “and right now, I’m not. Plain and simple. I just need to find a way to get back on track because I’m not playing well. I know it. Everyone knows it. It’s hard right now.”
Through 74 games played during his first two seasons, Hart was 40-26-4 with a .915 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against average.
Now, nearly halfway into the 2020-21 season, he’s at 6-5-3, with a save percentage of .888 and a GAA of 3.61.
And while Hart made 28 stops to shut out Buffalo on the road on Feb. 28, he has gotten the hook in his two other starts against the Sabres, currently the NHL’s last-place team. Vigneault also relieved him after 28:09 during the third game of the season, when he gave up four goals on 22 shots.
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Elliott Stepping Up
Buffalo went on to win that game 6-1, handing Hart and the Flyers their first loss of the season. On Tuesday, the team was bailed out by Brian Elliott. He stopped 11 of 12 shots through the final two periods and overtime before denying Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt in the shootout to seal the win.
Now with a 7-2-0 record this season, Elliott’s personal numbers are about as good as they’ve ever been in his long career.
In 483 NHL games, the 35-year-old has a career goals-against average of 2.50 and a save percentage of .912. This year, he’s at a gaudy 2.29 and .919.
That brings back memories of when he and Jaroslav Halak were one of the stingiest tandems in the league when they played with the St. Louis Blues nearly a decade ago.
Remember back to pre-pandemic times, last season? Elliott also stepped up then, when Hart was struggling.
Earlier in the season, his personal numbers weren’t as stellar as they are now. But Elliott delivered nine wins in 21 appearances through the first 46 games of the 2019-20 campaign, while Hart had 15 wins in 32 games played.
He then held the fort while Hart was sidelined by injury for nine games starting in mid-January, putting up a 5-1-1 record in his seven starts and helping to set the stage for the memorable surge when Hart returned.
As a veteran in his 14th NHL season, Elliott has seen it all. That’s part of what makes him such a good partner — and steadying influence — for Hart.
Finding His Form
Vigneault recognizes that not just all goalies, but all players, go through rough patches like this.
“I’ve been very fortunate in this game to have some great goaltenders in front of me and in front of my teams,” he said. “Lundqvist, Luongo, etc, etc — all those goaltenders at one time or another went through challenging periods.
“All players do, not just at the goaltender position. All players do. You’ve got to show mental strength, mental fortitude and you have to battle through. That’s what we expect Carter to do.”
Step 1: Hart was on the ice for an extended session with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh on Wednesday.
Lot of extra work for Carter Hart with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh. If you know Hart, he really works at it. pic.twitter.com/1l3rRBN69q
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) March 10, 2021
We’ll see where things go from here. The Flyers wrap up their first homestand this season with fans in the stands with a pair of games against the Washington Capitals on Thursday and Saturday.