Carter Hart has a chance to become a figure the Flyers haven’t had in 30 years, and the surest sign of the special kind of stardom within his grasp came during their 4-0 victory Wednesday over the Devils, just as the second period ended, just after Hart had stopped the collective breath of a sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center.
He had pushed himself across the crease, from the right post to the left, and thrown his left arm in the air, batting down a one-timer by Taylor Hall from the bottom of the right circle, a brilliant save, the best of his 25 in his first NHL shutout. And as the buzzer blared and Hart reached for the water bottle atop the net, everyone in that crowd stood and roared for several seconds.
It has been a rare and precious thing for a Flyers goaltender to earn that sort of reaction, that display of love, and it was a testament to the opportunity that Hart has before him here.
It’s not only that, even as just a 21-year-old, he might solve a crisis that has bedeviled this franchise since Ron Hextall’s first stint with the Flyers in the late 1980s. It’s also that he might be the Flyers’ first full-fledged celebrity goalie since Hextall was clanking the goalposts with his stick, leading them to the 1987 Stanley Cup Final, and winning the Vezina Trophy as a rookie.
Sure, the Flyers have missed that high quality of play from hockey’s most important, most individualized position for most of the three decades since. But beyond that, Hart could capture the imagination of hockey fans here like no one has in a long, long time.
He looks like a man when he’s wearing his goalie equipment, but he has a soft-featured face that could stop a sorority meeting. He takes care to answer every question with the proper, hockey-culture-approved amount of humility. If he turns out to be as good as he’s been so far in his brief NHL career, he could be a prince in this town.
“I don’t really care,” Hart said late Wednesday. “If people start talking, whether it’s good or bad, at the end of the day the thing that matters is what I think, and the other thing is our group, the 23 other guys we have. If you don’t do your job, you don’t win games. That’s really the only thing that matters. All that outside noise has no effect on me or this hockey group. The only thing that matters is what’s inside these doors here.”
That’s the right thing to say. That’s the unselfish thing to say. But make no mistake: Hart has a platform to rise above his teammates, to take up more of the spotlight’s beam, just by the nature of his job and the skill with which he does it.
“Talent has no age,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “I’m a full believer in that.”
Vigneault would know: Over his previous 12 seasons in the NHL, with the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers, he coached two of the best goaltenders in the league’s recent history: Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist.
Luongo was a standard-bearer in Vancouver, but Lundqvist was something more in New York: a star in a city full of them, model handsome, an impeccable dresser, smooth with the media, the one player his team couldn’t do without, able to separate his fame off the ice from his excellence on it.
“The way he goes about his everyday life, I was very impressed,” said Kevin Hayes, who scored the Flyers’ second goal Wednesday and who was Lundqvist’s teammate with the Rangers for five years. “And I came here to Philly, and I see Hartsie doing the same stuff. He really buys into his game. He watches film. He knows his body, knows when to get more practice. He’s out there early. He’s out there late. He’s focused. It’s nice to see that, at a very young age, he’s acting very professionally.”
If at least some of Hart’s maturity is intrinsic and natural, much of it comes from the social incubator that still cocoons him.
“I talk to my parents every day,” he said, and they’re not the only ones.
There’s Parker Fowlds, the 78-year-old man with whom Hart billeted while he was playing junior hockey in Everett, Wash., the mentor whom Hart considers akin to a grandfather. There’s Hart’s goalie coach in Everett. There’s his goalie coach back home in Sherwood Park, Alberta. There’s his sports psychologist back home.
“I have a pretty good support team,” he said.
Apparently, it takes a village to raise a goalie, one who can handle the spoils and pressure that accompany an athlete who shows such potential for greatness.
“It’s never easy entering the NHL as a young player,” said Sean Couturier, who debuted with the Flyers in 2011, when he was 18. “It’s a faster game. It’s the best league in the world. There are some adjustments to be made.
"But the kid’s been really good. He’s mature. He’s handled himself really well. He’s well surrounded, I think, on and off the ice. He’s been a professional ever since he’s gotten here. He seems to have it all figured out.”
It looked that way Wednesday night. Twenty-five shots, 25 saves in the Flyers’ first home game this season, and when it was over, his teammates lined up, single-file, to rub his head and tap his pads in congratulations. He was perfect, except ...
At the end of that second period, he reached for the water bottle — “I always take it off and bring it to the bench,” he said — clumsily gripped it for a moment in his catching glove, and dropped it. The 19,658 at the Center just kept standing and roaring.