Coming into the 2022-23 season, very few people in the hockey sphere — if any — were expecting the Philadelphia Flyers to amount to much of anything in the campaign’s early going. But through their first 10 games of the season, the Flyers have a fairly adequate record of 5-3-2 and, on paper, are in the mix of the Metropolitan Division standings.
The Flyers’ strong start (by their standards) hasn’t been a result of high-octane offense, though — they rank 29th in the NHL in goals for per game. They’ve just been very good at keeping pucks out of their own net, allowing the sixth-fewest goals against per game in the league since the start of the season.
But this isn’t thanks to the play of Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim or any of the Flyers’ other key contributors on the back end.
This is Carter Hart’s doing.
Hart, still just 24 years old, has been nothing short of sensational since the season opener. The second-round pick from 2016 has a 5-0-2 record in his seven starts on the season and sports a 2.10 goals against average along with a ridiculous .943 save percentage. Last week, Hart set a new career high with a whopping 48 saves to help the Flyers earn a massive victory over the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.
Hart was also the star of the show in Tuesday night’s 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers, stopping 35 of the Blueshirts’ 36 shots on net to help the Flyers earn a point in overtime. Rangers forward Chris Kreider scored the game-winner on a breakaway with under a minute remaining in the overtime period.
Hart deserved a better result Tuesday, and the Flyers are hopeful more goal support will come as the season progresses.
“In this league, you work off your goalie. It’s a terrific start for Carter,” said Tortorella after the loss to the Rangers.
“I think each start he has and each time that he gives us an opportunity, I’m hoping that it allows us, the players in front of him, allows them to feel, ‘You know what? We’ve got to give something back to him.’ And without tying us up in knots, try to do some of the things we want to do to have the puck more.
“That’s one thing about our league, we get great athletes here. Great people in our league. They see Carter laying it out there, and I think it puts them in a spot where, ‘I’m gonna give it for him.’ And I hope it builds a little camaraderie.”
To this point, the Flyers have still yet to win a game without Hart in the cage. In the three games in which Hart was rested, backup Felix Sandstrom took the reins in net, but the Flyers were unable to earn a victory. Sandstrom, 25 years old with eight NHL games under his belt, still hasn’t earned win No. 1 in his career, and frankly, that has little to do with his own play.
His numbers look rough (he has a 3.78 goals against average and .894 save percentage in three starts on the season), but Sandstrom has played well enough to keep the Flyers in games. There’s just only so much an ordinary goalie can do for a team as far away from true contention as the Flyers are.
In the Flyers’ last four games, they’ve been hugely outshot and outchanced. Since their October 27 tilt against the Panthers, the Flyers trail in the shots department 169-95 and rank dead-last in the NHL in Corsi For percentage (34.40) and second to last in expected goals for percentage (32.51) at 5-on-5. The Flyers are being pummeled in the possession game, and as obvious as it sounds, the most effective way to start giving their netminders some goal support is to simply possess the puck longer and create more chances of their own.
Right now, that’s a big focus for Tortorella.
“Playing in your own end as much as we have, it’s due to a little bit of not having the puck and making more plays,” said Tortorella after the loss in Toronto. “Somehow we’ve got to instill some confidence in our players to not be afraid to make a mistake and make some plays. At times we do. [...] But it’s certainly not consistent enough in a 60-minute hockey game, so we’re gonna continue to work at it.”
As Hart carries the load and Sandstrom continues his quest to earn his first NHL victory, the goal for the rest of the team should be simple.
Give them some — or any — support.
Hart’s play to start the season has been mesmerizing, but unsustainable. And before long, it’ll need to be the offense that steps up for a change.