By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
Today is Carter Hart’s 22nd birthday and he celebrated by winning a classic goaltending duel in Game 1 on Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens and his boyhood idol Carey Price.
It calls for a celebration, right? Not for the calm and focused Hart.
Perhaps everyone on the outside of the series is making a bigger deal out of the goaltending matchup than the two teams and, individually, the two netminders are. But Hart has come into the playoffs and replicated his performance from the regular season. And then in typical fashion, he has acted like it’s no big deal.
“Honestly, I just prepared the same,” Hart said. “Coming into the playoffs here, it’s a different situation for everybody having a lot break in between, but we all prepare the same. We do our video before games to get ready. Everybody has their own way of preparing. You just have to prepare like it’s any other game.”
Except it’s not just another game. Not to Flyers fans who have been here before. Not to Flyers fans who have watched this team for years and waiting almost a decade since the last time they were the higher seed in a playoff series or even had a playoff series lead. And especially not for the fans who have waited decades to have a goaltender like this, who is now making exclusive lists with regularity.
Hart’s first three true playoff games were not going to come before his 22nd birthday in the traditional sense. The series was not going to be three games in by then. But technically, Hart has three “playoff” games under his belt. He has not only won all three, but allowed just one goal in each.
What kind of company does that put him in? Well, there are only six other goalies who have ever won their first three playoff games before turning 22. One of them, Matt Murray, has two Stanley Cups to his name and is just five seasons into his NHL career. Two more are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick Roy and Rogie Vachon. Both Roy and Vachon won their first three career playoff games as members of the Canadiens.
And yet, none of that seems to matter to Hart. It’s cool, but it’s not what he’s playing for. At 22 years old, he still feels like he has to prove himself, still feels like he hasn’t completely made it yet and still has his sights set on helping the team reach the ultimate goal.
“We’re in the playoffs right now, so it’s crunch time. We know that Montreal’s a good team and they come hard. I thought tonight was a good battle between both teams,” Hart said. “Whenever it’s a good battle on the ice, it’s always rewarding at the end. That was a hard fought win by us.”
“I’ve gotten to know Carter. I’ve got to know how he sees the game and handles a situation,” Alain Vigneault said. “He’s been through big games before and he’s played well. He’s just going out there and doing what he’s supposed to do, giving us a chance to win games.”
Hard-fought, indeed. The Canadiens certainly gave the Flyers a fight, coming at them in waves in the second. This was the type of game that normally causes the Flyers to crumble. Hart kept them standing when the shots kept coming in the second period. His teammates locked it down in the third, but that didn’t mean there were some close calls in the final 20 minutes.
Hart made a great pair of saves as Montreal pulled the goalie, first on a high shot by Brendan Gallagher and then on the rebound by Philip Danault. Nick Suzuki then hit the crossbar with 26 seconds left. Even for the best netminders in the game, the posts are your best friends at times.
“I think our first and third period we were better as far as playing north-south and going quickly to what we do best,” Vigneault said. “I thought in the second period, Montreal played a real strong period. They were first on pucks. They made us make bad decisions with the puck and they looked real fast. There’s no doubt that this is what we expected, a low scoring, tight checking game. Two good teams. Good goaltending on both sides. Hard fought game.”
While the Flyers didn’t have their best game by a long stretch, they also got the goaltending that allows the best teams in the league to survive games that are like that, games where you get challenged, games where you can be pressured into mistakes, games where you don’t have it for the full 60 minutes. The Flyers didn’t and perhaps that’s a missed opportunity for Montreal. Thanks to Carter Hart, the birthday boy, the Flyers have a 1-0 series lead heading into Game 2 on Friday.