GLENDALE, Ariz. — Carter Hart seemed so unflappable, so mentally strong, in his rookie season and the first couple months of 2019-20 that it was easy to forget the former Everett Silvertip standout was barely 21 years old and there would be growing pains along his path to becoming an All-Star goaltender.
The growing pains, which escalated on the Philadelphia Flyers’ recent road trip, are real and sometimes difficult to watch.
Like the first-period goal that Brad Richardson scored Saturday in Arizona, a shot from distance that hopped past Hart and changed the complexion of the game.
Like the four first-period goals he allowed — not all of them were his fault, mind you — in the Flyers’ 5-4 loss in Vegas on Thursday.
Like his past seven road starts prior to Tuesday night’s game at Carolina, which all turned into losses.
Hart denies it, but it sure seems like playing on the road has gotten into his head.
But give coach Alain Vigneault credit for trying to get Hart out of his road slump by playing him in back-to-back games in Vegas and Arizona. It didn’t work, but at least we learned more about Hart: That his focus is wandering, and that he’s not (yet) the cure-all to what ails the Flyers.
With forward Oskar Lindblom out for the season as he battles a rare bone cancer, and center Nolan Patrick’s return unknown while he recovers from a migraine disorder, the Flyers need Hart to be razor-sharp if they are going to be a factor in the playoffs — if they get there, that is.
From here, their only hope to earn a berth and win their first playoff series since 2012 is to have Kid Goalie get hot and carry the team.
Like he has at the Wells Fargo Center.
At home, Hart thrives on that pressure and, even at such a young age, looks capable of carrying the team. He makes some key stops early in games, and by his body language, you can see his confidence grow. The team picks up that vibe and follows his lead.
On the road, well, he and his teammates have lately been a textbook case of Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
Hart has given up early goals and you can sense his teammates getting that here-we-go-again feeling.
The Flyers desperately need Hart to straighten out his road woes, whether he does it with goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh or his long-time sports psychologist, John Stevenson. And the sooner the better.
On the road, Hart is 2-9-1 with a 4.01 goals-against average and .850 save percentage. At home, he is 11-1-2 with a 1.49 GAA and .947 save percentage.
The discrepancy is startling, even if the entire team has played much worse on the road.
“He’s a young goaltender that is exactly that,” Vigneault said after Saturday’s 6-2 loss in Arizona. “He’s young and he’s growing and he’s trying to get better. We’re going work with him and he’s going to work and he is going to get better.”
The Flyers were 1-4 on their current road trip going into Tuesday night’s game, and, as noted, Hart hasn’t been the only one struggling.
But by the nature and magnitude of his position, Hart has been the most noticeable player on this trip. The Flyers have allowed a whopping 22 goals (5.5 per game) in their four losses.
In the first period of their past three games, they have been outscored, 11-2.
“There’s no doubt that we’re a better group than we’ve shown lately,” Vigneault said.
Right now, the concern is getting Hart to play like a 31-year-old veteran and not a 21-year-old in his first full season. Is that fair? Absolutely not. But medical developments involving Lindblom and Patrick, unfortunately, have made that a reality.
At every level, Hart has played with a maturity beyond his years, so a bounce-back at some point this season isn’t out of the question.