When fans last saw Carter Hart — or Cah-tah Haht, as teammate Kevin Hayes and head coach Alain Vigneault like to playfully call him — the Flyers goalie was putting the finishing touches on a terrific season.
Hart was on a certified roll. Since returning from a lower-abdominal injury, he had a 9-2 record and a .934 save percentage in 11 games. Overall, he was 24-13-3 with a 2.42 goals-against average (eighth in the league) and a .914 save percentage.
Pretty impressive for a 21-year-old who is in his first full NHL season.
Now comes another first: Hart is preparing to appear in his initial Stanley Cup playoffs.
Hart is known for his steady, unflappable demeanor, but it’s fair to wonder if his first NHL playoff experience will shake his nerves.
“To be honest, whenever I play I am always nervous before games,” he said Tuesday after Day 2 of Training Camp II in Voorhees. “That’s just because I care. That’s not at the point where I let it affect me or affect my game. I am sure there will be nerves when the first playoff game comes. That’s just part of the game of hockey. As a younger player, that’s just part of the steps in your career you have to take. I think it’s one step I have been waiting for my whole life. It’s going to be very exciting. Our group here is ready to get things going.”
Vigneault believes Hart has the makeup to thrive under pressure.
“Certain players have a way of pushing themselves and really working hard at their game to become the best they can be,” Vigneault said. “I see that in Carter. He really works at his game. He’s got a great relationship with Kim [Dillabaugh, the goalie coach]. They talk about game situations, technique, the technical aspects. And you can see him wanting to get better every day. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at this level, but he’s played some big games at other levels and has come up big. I’m confident that with him and support from Brian [Elliott], it’s a great tandem.
“I’ve really seen Carter grow, and I think this is the right time for him.”
Vigneault downplayed the fact that Hart, who has excelled on the World Junior stage, has never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Experience is experience. It’s important. But the fact Carter has played big games, I think he’ll come in with the right mindset,” Vigneault said. “I really like the progression he’s had throughout the year. He had some real good moments, he had some challenging moments, and he faced them head-on. I think he’s excited and looking forward to this opportunity. I’m really confident that he’s going to do a really good job.”
Hart’s teammates love kidding around with him.
Asked about the growth in Hart’s game this season, right winger Jake Voracek said the goalie was “still the same kid off the ice, a young, innocent kid that everyone’s [playfully] making fun of, so that’s a good sign. If you’re getting made fun of, that means people like you. It’s a good thing.”
“Obviously, he was one of the best goalies in the league at this early stage of his career,” he added. “We’re real lucky to have him on our team and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.”
During the season’s long pause, Hart went back home to suburban Edmonton and didn’t have much access to ice, facing shots “maybe four times.” He said he went three months without skating, calling it probably the longest stretch off the ice in his life.
“That’s why I came here a little bit early,” he said after Tuesday’s session.
He has been here about a month, and before camp started Monday, he was able to get on the ice four times a week with Dillabaugh and “just kind of focus on the foundation principles of my game. Just kind of bring those back and slowly get back into a rhythm.”
Vigneault wants to keep his players sharp heading into the playoffs on Aug. 11 and plans to play backup goalie Elliott — whom Hart calls a “great mentor” — in at least one game in the round-robin tournament against Boston, Tampa Bay, and Washington. That tourney starts Aug. 2.
“Our expectations are to have a long playoff run and a big prize, which starts by winning the first round,” Vigneault said. “You’re going to need some depth.”
Vigneault later added, “the focus here is not just to win the first round.”