For a while there it looked like he might be the first New Jersey-born goaltender to make it to the NHL and the first to leave it – possibly for good.
After making a strong initial impression in his debut 2016-17 season with the Flyers, Anthony Stolarz missed almost the entire 2017-18 campaign due to a pair of knee surgeries.
By the start of the current slate, Stolarz had tumbled all the way down to third-string netminder on the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Then a strange thing happened. Goaltenders started falling faster than bowling pins at Asbury Lanes, not far from his Jackson, N.J. hometown.
Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth and Alex Lyon all succumbed to injuries. Calvin Pickard came and went. Mike McKenna was claimed on waivers and ended up in Allentown.
When the dust settled, 20-year-old Carter Hart and the 25-year-old Stolarz were suddenly manning the Philadelphia pipes and doing it with unexpected efficiency.
All Hart did was win NHL rookie of the month (January) and NHL second star of the week honors in the space of five days.
All Stolarz did was walk into Madison Square Garden on Jan. 29 and shut out the Rangers, 1-0.
Who would have thought it?
“This was the dream the entire time,’’ says Stolarz, who is scheduled to start Thursday night’s home game against the Los Angeles Kings. “Making that comeback for this moment. Just being able to be back in the NHL a year removed from that surgery, I’m extremely proud of that. Everyday I’m here I’m not taking it for granted and I am looking to get better.’’
The quickness of changing events stunned all the Flyers, Stolarz included.
“I’m definitely surprised,’’ he says. “I think in the matter of a week and a half, I went from the third-string American League goalie to starting on that western trip (Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver).
“So it’s amazing how things change. I’m just making the most of an opportunity and you get very few of those. So when you get out there, you definitely want to make an impression and so far I think I have. But I think I have a lot left in the tank.’’
Stolarz played in seven games for the Flyers back in 2016-17. He even recorded a shutout at Detroit and finished with a 2-1-1 mark, a 2.07 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.
Then the first knee injury struck in the 2017-18 training camp.
“It’s tough getting hurt a week and a half before training camp,’’ he says. “Thinking that I was going to be ready to go. It happens and probably the hardest part was that first month, watching those guys go to Lehigh and guys made the Flyers and I probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to play that year.
“Although it was tough, I have a great support group here. Being close to home definitely helped. My family was able to come take care of me. I was on crutches for two months. I had to have someone prepare some meals for me. My brothers came down and helped me out, that was key.’’
In addition to being the first goalie out of Jersey to make it to the NHL, Stolarz is one of only 21 Garden State native players from any position to achieve that plateau.
It all started back in his youth when the decision to play goalie was rather an easy one.
“My older brother, Todd, played goalie and I kind of wanted to follow in his footsteps,’’ Anthony says. “I would always follow him around to the rink, to his practices, games.
“So when I made the decision to play hockey, it was kind of easy. Be a goalie and take all his gear from him as I got older.’’
Stopping pucks seems to fit Stolarz’s personality. He’s 6-foot-6 and takes up a lot of space. He’s the last line of defense and enjoys the challenge.
“The mental aspect of it, just being able to read plays,’’ says Stolarz. “Just trying to outsmart shooters and (winning) the one-on-one battles. . .anticipate their next play’’.
“So, that aspect of it I love. Growing up, I loved the (large) pads, so there was some attraction there, too.’’
The journey to the top took Stolarz, a second-round draft pick (45th) of the Flyers in 2012, a few years to cover. The stops included Corpus Christi IceRays of the NAHL, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the OHL London Knights (both seasons with a save percentage of .920 or better).
Does being the first NHL goalie from New Jersey make him proud?
“Extremely proud,’’ he says. “You look at Cayden Primeau (Keith Primeau’s son) just played for Team USA. There are guys coming and hopefully New Jersey starts getting a reputation to have some guys who come out and make the big leagues.’’