Start with the save. Start there because it was more than just a brilliant moment of goaltending from Carter Hart, more than just the play that preserved the Flyers’ 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night.
Start with Hart’s throwing himself to his right across the crease to the open side of the net, with Nikolay Goldobin’s shot thudding against the inside of Hart’s right arm, with everyone at the Wells Fargo Center gobsmacked that Hart arrived just in time, Spider-Man style, to prevent a game-tying third-period goal.
“He’s been remarkable,” Flyers center Sean Couturier told reporters. “That save there at the end, he’s making some miracles out there. It’s nice to have him back there. You know he can steal one.”
Start with the save because the save is a metaphor, the perfect symbol for what Hart has meant to the Flyers, how he has brightened their days and altered their fortunes, since they called him up from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in mid-December. The Flyers have won eight straight games, seven of them with Hart in net, and pulled themselves back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and it’s tempting to argue that Hart’s mere presence has caused his teammates to play a better brand of hockey.
It’s tempting, but it’s not really the truth. Based on the available statistical evidence and trends, the Flyers have been a better team not just with Hart, but primarily — not exclusively, but primarily — because of Hart.
· Hart’s save percentage through his 16 games is .925, which, if he had appeared in enough games to qualify among the NHL’s statistical leaders, would rank third in the league. The collective save percentage of the other six goaltenders who have suited up for the Flyers this season — Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, Anthony Stolarz, Cal Pickard, Alex Lyon, and Mike McKenna — is .885, which would rank last among the NHL’s 31 teams.
The gap between those two figures, .925 and .885, cannot be overstated. Think about it this way: For every 100 shots on goal that the Flyers allow — 33 or so per game over a three-game period — Hart has given up seven goals, but his colleagues have given up 11. So in any game in which their goaltender has been someone other than Hart, the Flyers have had to score an additional 1.34 goals, on average, to make up for Hart’s absence — to give themselves the same chance to win that he gives them.
· That said, the notion that Hart’s excellence has freed the Flyers to be more aggressive or creative offensively doesn’t necessarily hold water, either. They have scored more goals per game this season without Hart (2.86) than they have in their 16 games with him (2.81). Will that change over time? It might. They’ve scored 29 goals in Hart’s last seven games (4.14). But …
· Over those most recent seven Hart starts — again, all of which were victories — the Flyers have been outshot, on a per-game average, 36.9 to 29.9. The only game that Hart hasn’t started during this winning streak was against the New York Rangers on Jan. 29. Anthony Stolarz made 38 saves that night in a 1-0 shutout, a game in which the Flyers managed just 19 shots themselves. It’s difficult to argue that the Flyers have established and maintained a territorial advantage over their opponents with such a wide negative disparity in shots.
· Hart made his debut with the Flyers on Dec. 18, in a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. Before then, the Flyers had blocked 436 shots through their first 31 games this season, the eighth-lowest total in the NHL to that point and an average of 14.1. Over their 22 games since Hart’s arrival, they have blocked a league-high 383 shots, an average of 17.4.
In one sense, such an uptick would be expected and, for the Flyers and Hart, beneficial. The team’s forwards and defensemen, it would seem, are more inclined to sacrifice their bodies in the name of helping and protecting a rookie goaltender. “It starts in front of him,” forward Wayne Simmonds told reporters earlier this season.
But blocked shots can be a misleading statistic, in this regard: If your team is blocking a lot of shots, it probably doesn’t have control or possession of the puck much. Your team is probably chasing the play, not dictating it, and in the end, you’re still relying on your goaltender to bail you out.
· Of course, the quality of shots that an opposing team gets, or is allowed to get, matters as much as, if not more than, the quantity. In changing the Flyers’ defensive strategy, interim coach Scott Gordon has preached to his players the importance of pushing the action away from the Flyers’ net, so that opponents shoot more frequently from the perimeter and the Flyers have an easier time limiting scoring chances. There’s just little evidence yet that this approach is working.
According to the statistical database Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers are allowing more scoring chances per game since Hart got here (26.27) than they did before he arrived (25.1), and they are surrendering about the same number of “high-danger scoring chances”: 10.64 per game before Hart, 10.36 after Hart.
Here’s the big difference: Through the Flyers’ first 31 games, their stoppage rate on those high-danger chances was 82 percent. Since Hart came up, that rate has jumped to 88.6 percent.