Start with the first overtime, because the first overtime is when Carter Hart made the saves that saved the Flyers. Start with the move he made less than seven minutes in, when he snaked out his left pad butterfly-style, as if he were a yoga instructor trying to break his students’ spirits, and muffled a backhander by Anders Lee. Go to Mathew Barzal’s redirection of a feathery Jordan Eberle pass as the two of them zoomed through the Flyers’ defensive zone, two members of the best forward line in this Eastern Conference semifinal series bent on ending everything then and there. Hart smothered that one. Then go to the bad giveaway on a Flyers power play, the one that led to a 2-on-1 for the Islanders and gave Jean-Gabriel Pageau an open shot from the high slot that he rang off Hart’s mask.
The Flyers will play a Game 7 on Saturday night, after a 5-4 two-overtime will-tester Thursday in Game 6. And of all the remarkable developments that have contributed to their tying this series – Oskar Lindblom’s inspiration return to the lineup, Scott Laughton’s and Ivan Provorov’s winning goals, Provorov’s ability to log more than 38 minutes of ice time in a game without tiring – none has been as important as Hart. He was brilliant Thursday night, stopping 49-of-53 shots, shaking off a soft goal in the third period of Game 5 to shut out the Islanders over the final 55 minutes, 33 seconds of Game 6.
It’s not often that a goaltender gives up four goals in an elimination playoff game and is so obviously the reason that his team wasn’t eliminated. But … here we are. And he’s 22.
“Carter’s a young goaltender [who], in my mind, is growing and getting better,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “Without a doubt, without him tonight, we’re not there. He played extremely well. But I’m not going to apologize for good goaltending. That’s what you need. … We need goaltending like anybody else [who] wins at this time of the year.”
Let’s be honest here: The Flyers have needed Hart more in this series than the Islanders have needed their No. 1 goalie, Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov has been fine, but the Islanders have had the territorial advantage over the Flyers for most of this series. They had it again Thursday night. The 53-31 edge they had in shots barely does their dominance justice.
The Flyers got out to that 2-0 lead, and the Islanders spent the next period-and-a-half acting as if they had spotted the Flyers those two goals just to give them an even chance. Hart had to be great just to keep his team in the game. It was 4-3 after two periods. It was a small miracle that it wasn’t 7-3. Hart was that small miracle.
“He stops the puck,” Vigneault said. “That’s what a goalie is supposed to do. Stop the puck. That’s what he does.”
That he has done it so well during this postseason – he’s 9-4 with a 2.12 goals-against average – is mildly surprising, given the manner in which his regular season, his first in the NHL, unfolded. It seems a faraway memory now, from another epoch, but remember: For whatever reason – coincidence, circumstances, jitters, whatever – Hart was a horrible goaltender away from the Wells Fargo Center for much of the season.
He has erased that ugly recent history, and he has gone a long way to burying the worry that he would struggle to handle the heavy workload of this condensed schedule in the Toronto bubble. In the Flyers’ two rounds of the playoff tournament, against Montreal and New York, Brian Elliott has started just once. He has needed to start just once.
“It’s important to get your recovery and rest,” Hart said. “I take pride in my recovery and what I do off the ice. We’re all athletes, and we’re all expected to perform when called upon.”