PITTSBURGH — Carter Hart began drawing crowds in Everett a half a decade ago when he was a wunderkind 16-year-old Silvertips goaltender.
Now that he has ascended to the sport’s zenith with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, it appears little has changed.
“I don’t have too much time,” he said with a rueful grin Sunday after the Flyers knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in overtime at PPG Paints Arena. “I have a bunch of people waiting for me.”
He wasn’t kidding. A throng of fans stuck around as Hart and several teammates, including fellow former Silvertips and current Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas, emerged from the dressing room to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
A couple of familiar faces were in the crowd as former Silvertips head coach Kevin Constantine and former Tips goaltending coach Shane Clifford stepped forward to congratulate and hug Hart, the most-decorated player to ever wear an Everett sweater.
Constantine and Clifford knew they were working with a special talent back in 2014 when the former eighth-round WHL bantam pick debuted as a 15-year-old, so neither was surprised to see Hart achieve success as a 20-year-old NHL rookie.
“It’s not logical, if you look at it from a history hockey standpoint (because) goalies are always the last to develop in terms of age,” said Constantine, a former goaltender himself. “A good goalie doesn’t generally make it until he’s in his mid-20s, so that’s what hockey tradition says. But if you know Carter Hart, and you’ve been around him and watched what he did every step along the way, nothing surprises you about Carter. So this is not surprising that he can step in and do this. It’s really fun and it’s amazing, but it’s not surprising.”
Clifford runs a goaltending school out of Pittsburgh and served as Everett’s goalie coach for 11 seasons before relinquishing those duties in the past offseason to join the OHL’s Erie Otters. He mentored Hart through his four WHL seasons with summer workouts, monthly in-season visits to Everett, and watching every game online.
“I gotta stay humble, but no (I’m not surprised),” Clifford said. “I just believe in the kid. I just do, and he’s been unbelievable at every level I’ve ever watched him play, and I just really believe in him. I thought he would do the same thing here, and that’s just my thoughts on it. He’s just good.”
The 48th overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, Hart has been hailed as a potential savior to Philadelphia’s historic goaltending woes. He began his first professional season with Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League before a bad start to the season cost both Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall their jobs. Meanwhile, goaltenders Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, who began the season on Philadelphia’s roster, each got hurt.
That meant Hart got the call while attending a Lehigh Valley team Christmas party, and debuted with 20 saves in a 3-2 home win over Detroit on Dec. 18. Two days later he saved 31 shots in a 2-1 road victory at Nashville.
“My first game was a little bit nerve-wracking,” Hart said. “I realized during warm-ups (in Nashville) that it’s just another game. I felt like I’d done this before. I came out there and felt like I could play at this level, and I felt comfortable, and I just went out there and played my game. That’s the mindset I have to have with every game, is just going out and just worrying about what you can control.”
Hart recently missed three weeks with an ankle injury, but he is a big reason the Flyers are still alive for a playoff berth as the regular season winds down. He has fashioned a 14-9-1 record with a 2.76 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in 24 games entering Tuesday’s game against Montreal.
“I think (the Flyers) wanted to be slow in their development of him, and that made sense right up until they ran out of goalies because of injuries and lack of team success,” Constantine said. “It was so exciting to see him finally get that chance. And then it was like maybe it’s just until (players return from injury) or maybe just a few games. But as he’s done every step along the way, he just doesn’t let you take him out of the net.”
Constantine likened Hart’s NHL rookie season to his WHL rookie year when he replaced popular veteran goaltender Austin Lotz.
“He just made it impossible to not give him the job, because he played so well,” Constantine said. “He’s just repeating what he did in juniors here.”
Sunday’s road victory in Pittsburgh was reminiscent of many vintage Hart performances in Everett. Hart saved all 26 shots as the game was scoreless through two periods. Pittsburgh’s Teddy Blueger potted a rebound past Hart to open the scoring early in the third period, but Hart was flawless the rest of the way and finished with 41 stops.
Hart’s teammates rewarded him as James van Riemsdyk scored the equalizer with Hart on the bench for an extra attacker with 20 seconds to play in regulation, and Sean Couturier won it with four seconds to go in the overtime period.
Most importantly, the Flyers picked up two points with the victory to move within six points of Columbus for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“We had a lot of thrillers like that in Everett, for sure,” Hart said. “What I really cherished last year and my few years in Everett… (was) the fun that we had, and the group of guys we had. It’s not like coming to the rink every day is a chore. It’s a privilege and we have a lot of fun. I think that’s the same kind of feeling I had when I was in Everett last year. We just have to keep things light and remember it’s still a game.”
Across the country from where he became a junior hockey legend and across the state from where hopes to build a professional legacy, Carter Hart still cherishes mingling with his crowd.
Just like in Everett.
Jesse Geleynse is a former Herald Writer who covered Hart and the Silvertips for three seasons before relocating to Pittsburgh last fall. Follow him on Twitter @jessegeleynse.