The half-hug and handshake that Carter Hart and Carey Price shared after Game 6 on Friday night brought to a close the clearest and most compelling storyline of the Flyers’ first-round playoff series against the Canadiens. From the beginning of Game 1 to the end of the Flyers’ 3-2 victory Friday, Hart had outplayed Price: higher save percentage, lower goals-against average, more shutouts, more responsible for his team’s victories. The former had idolized the latter, and now the learner had surpassed the master.
“Definitely a really special moment,” said Hart, who stopped 31 of the Canadiens’ 33 shots in Game 6. “Obviously, I look up to him. For him to come over and congratulate you in the handshake line – he said, ‘Hell of a series’ and that he’ll be watching. That’s pretty special and definitely something I won’t forget.”
That’s a hell of a thing for a 22-year-old athlete, to have his hero whisper to him such a compliment and such well wishes. But while Hart is mature enough to recognize he has to file away the memory of that moment as he prepares for the Flyers’ next opponent, the Islanders, he would do well to familiarize himself with an episode from early in Price’s career, if he hasn’t familiarized himself with it already. It is likely not an episode that Price remembers fondly.
Just as Hart did against the Canadiens, Price in the spring of 2008 excelled in his first playoff series, against the Boston Bruins. He was a rookie then, the phenom on the rise. He was the primary reason to think his team could win the Stanley Cup. Montreal was the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and Price made 25 saves in a Game 7 shutout, finishing the series with a .925 save percentage, shutting down his team’s fiercest rival, allowing the Canadiens to advance to the second round. There, they met … the Flyers. There, the pressure and expectations intensified. And there, Price’s postseason fell apart.
Over the first three games of the series, Price surrendered 10 goals on 68 shots – a ghastly .853 save percentage – and each goal seemed more preventable than the last. R.J. Umberger from 35 feet, Umberger again after Price went on a squirrely chase for a loose puck, Scotty Upshall with a 25-foot wrist shot, Mike Richards with a 35-foot wrist shot. Price was 20 years old, and he appeared to be carrying the weight of the world in his catching glove. Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau benched Price for Game 4, replacing him with Jaroslav Halak. The Flyers won anyway, 4-2. Carbonneau went back to Price for Game 5, and the Flyers torched him for five goals and ended the series.
None of that history means that Hart is bound to play as poorly in the second round as Price did back then. Hart has as accomplished a resume as a goaltender his age can have. In junior, he was the Canadian Hockey League’s best goalie one year, the Western Hockey League’s best goalie the next, and he won a gold medal with Canada in the 2018 world championships. Once the Flyers called him up late in 2018, his presence has stabilized a position that had bedeviled them for more than three decades.
“It’s remarkable,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “He’s 22 years old, and he’s out there giving us a chance to win every game. I’ve said this a few times about Carter: He’s obviously very talented, and his track record speaks for itself, but the most impressive thing about Carter is if he gives up a bad goal or a game doesn’t go the way he wants it to, he has this uncanny ability to bounce back.”
So far, he has, yes. But Price’s performance in that ’08 series – a succession of mental and physical gaffes that, based on the available evidence, no one would have expected from him – should serve as a reminder that the playoffs are unpredictable, that they come with no assurances and guarantees. As terrific as Hart was in the first round, coach Alain Vigneault still pulled him in Game 2, and only the eagle eye of instant replay, nullifying what would have an inexcusably soft goal by Nick Suzuki at an awful time, kept Vigneault from yanking Hart again in Game 5.
Such moments and mistakes will loom larger against the Islanders. They are superior to the Canadiens – deeper, more experienced, with one of the league’s best coaches in Barry Trotz. They just wiped out the Washington Capitals in five games, and they went 3-0 against the Flyers during the regular season. For the Flyers to win this series, Hart’s teammates will have to be better than they were against Montreal. So will he.
“You’ve got to learn; you’ve got to grow,” Vigneault said. “Carter Hart’s got to learn. He’s got to grow. He was up against his idol growing up, and he handled it like we expected, like we expect our team to handle the playoffs.”
There’s that word: expect, with its implicit standard to be met. This is the postseason, and there’s only so much growing a team or its young goaltender can afford, because tomorrow is always a mystery, even for a kid as good as Carter Hart. Since his 2008 nightmare against the Flyers, Carey Price has been an All-Star six times, has won the Hart Trophy and the Vezina Trophy, and has appeared in 53 playoff games. Fifty-three. Two of them came after the second round. Two.