NEW YORK — There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, that the Flyers would have entered a weekend such as this one against the Rangers — Friday in Philadelphia and Sunday afternoon here, a home-and-home set with ramifications — at an undeniable disadvantage. Go back to last season, when then-coaches Dave Hakstol and Scott Gordon went through goaltenders like tissues, eight over 82 games. Go back to just about any season over the previous 11 years, when Henrik Lundqvist was the Rangers’ full-time goalie and, based on his body of work, the best in the Metropolitan Division.
Maybe it was fitting, then, that the final sequence of the Flyers’ 5-3 victory Sunday at Madison Square Garden — less than 48 hours after their 5-2 victory Friday at the Wells Fargo Center — served to show how much has changed in that dynamic. There was Carter Hart, sliding from his right to his left to pad away a one-timer by the Rangers’ Brendan Lemieux just as the horn blared. One minute earlier, with Lundqvist pulled and the Rangers down by two goals, Hart had fended off a right-circle slap shot by Adam Fox. Two periods earlier, he had made a succession of four point-blank saves: right pad on Tony DeAngelo, left arm on Pavel Buchnevich, right pad on Kaapo Kakko from the low slot, right pad on a Mika Zibanejad breakaway.
“You have to be ready for whatever comes,” Hart said, “and it came kind of hot early and then again at the end.”
While Lundqvist, playing for the first time in nearly a month as the Rangers labor to transition from his reign to Igor Shesterkin, gave up four goals to the Flyers over the game’s first 22 minutes, Hart was buying the Flyers an opportunity to build so big a lead, then preserve it. Nine saves on nine shots in that terrific first period, 10 saves on 12 shots in a third period the Rangers dominated, 23 in the game, and with the Flyers making a charge for first place in the Metropolitan, it’s long past time to get used to a once-wild idea: Their goaltending might turn out to be their greatest edge on their competitors.
That was the symbolism thick throughout Sunday’s game. No, Lundqvist isn’t the Rangers’ future in net anymore; he’s not even really their present. But Sunday marked his 61st game against the Flyers, and he has won 35 of him, and his mere presence always made the Rangers formidable. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2012, carried them to three Eastern Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup Final in a four-year span from ’12 to ’15, and was a primary reason they qualified for the playoffs 10 times in the 11 years of his prime. But he was second-best at his position Sunday, and it wasn’t close. The afternoon had the feel of a torch-passing.
“Obviously, he’s been a great goalie in the league for a long time,” Hart said, “and he’s probably going to be a future Hall of Famer. It is pretty cool sometimes to play against him, but for me, I’m not trying to think about that.”
He can leave the thinking to everyone else. The Rangers, the Washington Capitals, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have handed off control of the division, and sometimes the NHL, to each other for years now, and at the core of each of those teams’ strong regular seasons and deep playoff runs was terrific goaltending. Lundqvist never gave the Rangers cause to worry. Braden Holtby won the Vezina in 2016, then the Stanley Cup in 2018. Matt Murray had won two Cups by the time he began his second full season in the league and compelled the Penguins to say goodbye to another Cup winner, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Now here comes Hart, and his statistics this season are better than any of theirs, and his career is all of 71 games old.
“Always remember he’s 21,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s like anybody else. He’s got to learn the game, and he is. He’s figuring things out. There’s no doubt we’ve got a real solid young man who’s got a tremendous amount of potential.”
Vigneault always takes care, whenever he’s asked about him, to point out Hart’s age, and it was no small gesture that he started Hart on Sunday, in a road game of such importance. Hart’s road numbers this season have been ghastly — a 3-10-1 record and an .855 save percentage ahead of Sunday — and since the Flyers’ lousy West Coast trip two months ago, Vigneault has started Hart in just three road games. It’s clear that he has been trying to protect the kid. “His potential is extremely high, and I’ve got a lot of faith in a very humble young man to be able to grasp things,” Vigneault said. “But I do want to taper everybody’s expectations.”
That’s fine. That’s prudent. But the time when Vigneault can’t protect Hart anymore is getting closer. The hope for the Flyers, the tangible promise of this season and postseason, is that he won’t have to.