PITTSBURGH – A few weeks ago, Anthony Stolarz was a third-string goalie in the minors and appeared to have no future with the Flyers.
Now, because of injuries and circumstances, he is trying to emerge as the Flyers’ go-to guy in the nets.
It’s been a wild ride for Stolarz, who had just one start during his time with the AHL’s Phantoms this season and was third on their depth chart, behind Carter Hart and Alex Lyon.
On Saturday, in his first appearance ever against the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey native stopped 30 of 32 shots as the visiting Flyers registered a much-needed 4-2 victory.
“Stolie played amazing,” right winger Wayne Simmonds said.
“His confidence,” coach Dave Hakstol said after Stolarz’s first NHL win in almost two years, “has really been impressive. He’s a guy who’s eager to take advantage of an opportunity. He’s not tight, he’s not overthinking things. He’s just excited to play. You can see that in his game.”
Despite lots of inactivity, Stolarz has been surprisingly sharp after being promoted to the Flyers because of injuries to Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, and Lyon. Neuvirth is now healthy and he was Stolarz’s backup on Saturday. Lyon is back playing with the Phantoms. Cal Pickard, another goalie, was put on waivers (and claimed by Arizona) because of Stolarz’s emergence.
Stolarz was forced to stop several golden chances Saturday because of breakdowns by defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. His most important save came on Derek Grant’s shorthanded breakaway with 12:17 left, protecting the Flyers’ 3-2 lead.
“He kind of covered the puck, so I knew he was going to go low,” Stolarz said. “I tried to take away five hole and he made a little chip play, and I was lucky enough to get enough on it.”
That helped the Flyers win for just the second time in their last eight games. In the previous game, the Flyers blew a 3-1 third-period lead and lost to Ottawa, 4-3.
“It kind of gets us back on track,” said the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Stolarz, the tallest goalie in Flyers history and the owner of a 2.32 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 10 career NHL games. “For me, it was nice to get that win, especially after the way the last game went, but as a team, it was huge.”
For the Flyers, it was a disruptive week off the ice as general manager Ron Hextall, assistant GM Chris Pryor, and assistant coach Gord Murphy were fired.
“Changes at the rink are never easy, but for us, it’s our job to prepare ourselves and move forward – and hopefully start a nice little run here,” said Stolarz, who survived a third-period collision with Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel.
Stolarz, 24, selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, played just four minor-league games last season, as he rehabbed from two knee surgeries. He was still rounding into shape this year when he was sent back to the Phantoms and was barely used.
Now, with Elliott still sidelined and Neuvirth’s injury-filled past making him risky, Stolarz (2.89 GAA, .912 save percentage in three games this season) hopes to get his first extended look as an NHL goalie. He has started the team’s last two games, and may get the call again Thursday against visiting Columbus.
Playing back-to-back games was helpful, Stolarz said. “As a goalie, it’s all about timing.”
Simmonds had good timing Saturday. He stopped Pittsburgh’s early momentum by challenging mammoth Jamie Oleksiak to a fight after the Flyers had fallen into an early 1-0 deficit. The Flyers need to continue the physical play they showed against the Penguins, Simmonds said.
“We’ve got to have that attitude when we play other teams, as well,” he said. “Obviously, playing Pittsburgh, I think it’s a no-brainer. It’s probably our biggest rival. If we want to prove we’re a good team, we need to start making our comeback now. We can’t wait anymore. We have to play with that feisty attitude. It’s got to be all for one, and one for all.”