"Fire Hakstol'' rang the familiar chant after Anthony Stolarz surrendered a third straight goal in a span of six minutes Tuesday night, but that third-period collapse could fuel a strong argument the other way, too.
Stolarz, yet another of the surgically repaired stack of goaltenders that former Flyers general manager Ron Hextall hoped would bridge his present to his future, was the fifth goalie coach Dave Hakstol has been forced to use while trying to infuse some momentum in a team that even one of its prominent players conceded "played scared'' Tuesday in trying to secure a home-ice victory over the NHL's second-worst team.
Jake Voracek was talking about the players in front of Stolarz, not about the 24-year-old goalie. From early on, when Stolarz used his 6-foot-6 frame to battle for and swat away an airborne puck, his mentality was clear: He was not going to let this chance get away without a fight, not after what he has been through.
"You want to embrace it,'' he said after the Ottawa Senators delivered the latest blow to this fragile squad, a 4-3 come-from-behind victory. The Senators have their own hard-luck narrative going this season, the latest punctuation a 4-2 loss to the Rangers on Monday night that by the second period Tuesday left them, in coach Guy Boucher's words, "just gassed.''
And left Stolarz with a golden chance to open some eyes, and give his team a much-needed spark.
"This is what you dream about your entire life,'' he said. "This is what you want. You want to be the guy, especially with the team that drafted you. But at the end of the day, it's about results. And for me, this is definitely a tough one.''
He said that a lot, "at the end of the day.'' It makes sense. He's had a lot of rough ends to his days over his career, a lot of "tough ones,'' starting with that 55-stitch gash he suffered on the back of his leg in juniors, a freak accident that nearly ended his career before it began. Then there were the two consecutive meniscus tears, the second coming as he searched for something in his car before training camp two summers ago, costing him all but four meaningless minor-league games last season and costing him his place in Hextall's crowded goaltender pecking order.
Two months ago, he was the forgotten man. The Flyers would begin the season with the two goalies for whom they had spent $5 million in cap space, Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. They had Alex Lyon, who had performed adequately in his NHL stint last season, spelling highly touted prospect Carter Hart down at Lehigh Valley.
Stolarz was the third man in down there. He played in three of the Phantoms' first 15 games. Hextall's answer to Neuvirth's latest injury was to sign a waived goaltender, Cal Pickard, rather than give Stolarz a prolonged chance to even back up.
"Stolie is a good goalie," Hextall said that day, after clearing him on waivers and returning him to Lehigh Valley. "If he hasn't missed [last season after two knee surgeries], he'd probably be in a different place right now in terms of his development. I'm interested to see how he does this year.''
He did well in relief of Pickard on Saturday in Toronto, stopping 33 of 35 shots he faced in 47 minutes, 40 seconds of the 6-0 loss. But we only have to look at Tuesday's game to be reminded what happens to a team's offense when it feels in total control of the game. Stolarz wasn't the reason the Flyers' 3-1 lead entering the third period looked bigger than it was, but he did claim command of his crease early, and against a tired and equally self-doubting team it seemed enough.
But then a puck he should have controlled better rolled into a place on his pad he couldn't see, teeing up Ottawa's second goal and breathing life into the Senators. A tip of the puck, a deflected puck batted in midair, and Stolarz and his team and its fans spent the next 30 minutes pondering their latest toxic mix of misplays and misfortune.
"I still don't know what happened,'' Voracek said. "I still can't believe we lost it.''
Hakstol, who called Stolarz's performance "solid," said: "You always want another save — right? — as you're going down the stretch and closing out the game. But we have to look at our play 200 feet in front of those goals.''
Well, most of them do. Stolarz? He spoke of reviewing those few inches of that 200 feet closest to him, inches that will go a long way to determining whether his long road back to this point was worth the effort.
"I've had worse days and worse nights,'' he said. "This is definitely a tough one. But if I want to make my mark here, I have to have a short-term memory and just keep going. At the end of the day, they're going to want guys who perform out there and give them the best chance to win. And it's up to me to prepare myself for that and show them I'm that guy.''