VOORHEES – When the season began, Anthony Stolarz was probably fifth on the Flyers’ goaltending depth chart.
This past weekend, as far as available netminders were concerned, the Jackson, N.J. native had shot all the way up to No. 1.
A vote of confidence from coach Dave Hakstol resulted in a critical start – critical meaning the Flyers were trying to steady their listing ship – at Pittsburgh.
Stolarz responded by stopping 30 of 32 shots in a 4-2 win at PPG Paints Arena, a victory which stopped the bleeding and put some of the distractions of general manager Ron Hextall’s firing on Nov. 26 in the rearview mirror.
The 24-year-old native of Edison, N.J. (he grew up in Jackson) made a big splash two years ago when he appeared in seven games for the Flyers, including a 2-1-1 record, a 2.07 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and a shutout win at Detroit.
But then came a pair of knee surgeries last season which limited him to just one game with the AHL Phantoms and three with the ECHL Reading Royals.
So this season began with Stolarz not only trailing NHL regulars Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth but also Alex Lyon and even 20-year-old Carter Hart.
Maybe even throw in waiver claimee Calvin Pickard, who has left the building and now is running with the Arizona Coyotes.
There’s no way of knowing if Hakstol will start Stolarz in the Flyers’ game this Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center against the Columbus Blue Jackets but this much is evident: The 6-foot-6, 2012 second-round draft pick has been impressive so far.
Stolarz did start in the Ottawa game last Thursday and took a 3-1 lead into the third period. If not for a complete meltdown by the Flyers’ defense, he might be 2-0 right now.
Can Stolarz make a serious push for some steady playing time in Philadelphia?
Hakstol says Stolarz has improved since his brief tenure in Philly two years ago, even though he missed most of last season.
“There’s a little more consistency and composure,’’ Hakstol said after Monday’s practice at the Skate Zone. “There are still some of those moments of overthinking, overplaying a play, but very many right now.
“I thought he was very composed (vs. the Penguins), he used his size and stature really well, being calm and composed in there.’’
Stolarz seems to be building a trust with his position teammates and that can be an asset down the road.
“He went out and did it and I thought he was our best player,’’ Hakstol said. “We gave up some good opportunities. . .he made some real good saves at key times in that game. For me, it’s a game that confidence-wise, this group has confidence in him.
“Everybody in here knows what he’s gone through injury-wise and how hard he’s had to fight his way back, so he has that respect level. That’s a good game for him to build off of and keep pushing forward.’’
Stolarz turns 25 next month and looks at this as an important opportunity to show he’s an NHL-caliber goaltender.
“The biggest for me is I want to gain their trust,’’ he said. “I want them to be able to rely on me, not play scared out there, knowing that if a mistake is made, the goalie is going to be there to bail them out, and vice versa.’’
Even though he sat a year, he made use of the time by studying some of the sport’s best netminders – from Nashville’s Pekka Rinne to Montreal’s Carey Price.
Perhaps he’s a better goaltender than he was two years ago because of that.
“I am still trying to get the timing back,’’ he admitted. “You can’t take a day off, you have to keep pushing forward. Playing in a couple games in a row, it’s been huge for my confidence.