Carter Hart’s first game in three weeks will be Thursday night against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals, a team that gives opposing goaltenders nightmares, a team led by the league’s top goal-scorer, Alex Ovechkin.
Welcome back, kid.
The 20-year-old goalie has been sidelined by an injured ankle, suffered in warmups before a 5-1 loss in Montreal on Feb. 21. Hart hid the injury from the Flyers coaches, tried to play, and allowed three goals on nine shots before being pulled midway through the first period of that defeat.
Now, he’s being thrown into the middle of a playoff race. It was Hart who helped the Flyers inch back into the playoff picture by his stellar play after being recalled from the AHL’s Phantoms.
“I’m just excited to get back into a game,” Hart said after going through a long optional practice Tuesday in Voorhees. “I know it’s been a little while.”
Hart served as Brian Elliott’s backup Monday, when the Flyers defeated Ottawa, 3-2, and moved to within three points of a playoff spot. (They fell five points out when Columbus defeated Boston on Tuesday.)
“It was good to get back into the game lineup,” said Hart, owner of a 13-8-1 record, 2.79 goals-against average, and .917 save percentage. “Even though I wasn’t playing, just kind of getting into the rhythm of warming up again and being around the guys again felt good.”
Interim coach Scott Gordon has opted to start Hart against the high-scoring Caps on Thursday rather than in Toronto on Friday. Elliott, who is on a 5-1-1 run, will start the latter game.
Elliott allowed four goals on 19 shots and was pulled from last Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to Washington early in the second period. At the time, the Flyers trailed, 4-0. Gordon said that game didn’t figure in his decision to name Hart his starter Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I looked at what was best for Carter as far as routine-wise,” Gordon said, noting Hart will have typical practice sessions entering the home game, “as opposed to having to travel and no pregame skate the day of [Friday’s game]. So just from a comfort standpoint, I think it’ll probably be easier going through that routine than playing his first game back on the road.”
Getting his first start against Ovechkin makes the game special for Hart. Ditto the chance to go against goalie Braden Holtby, the Caps’ expected starter. Hart and Holtby are close friends and have the same sports psychologist.
“It’ll be cool playing him and Holts,” said Hart, adding that Montreal’s Carey Price and Holtby were his favorite goalies while he was growing up outside of Edmonton.
As for trying to contain Ovechkin, “I’m just going to go out there and play my game and just have some fun,” Hart said. “It’s the same as when I played against [Sidney] Crosby a couple weeks ago. When you get out there and play against those guys, your game doesn’t change. I have the same approach going into every game.”
Hart said he had no problems jumping back into the action after he had injuries (hamstring, groin) or an illness (mononucleosis) when he played on the junior level. He said he feels 100 percent and doesn’t anticipate any problems returning.
The Flyers are on an 18-4-2 run, but still have little margin for error if they are going to sneak into the playoffs.
“Right now, we’re just taking things one game at a time and worrying about what we can control,” Hart said. “We can’t control how other teams are playing. We just have to worry about what’s in this locker room right here. I mean, we have the guys and we have the group to do it. We all believe in each other, and I think that’s important in this stretch here."
It’s a brutal stretch, with the next three games against Washington, Toronto, and Pittsburgh.