The importance of the goaltender position in hockey can be compared to quarterback, pitcher and point guard in other sports.
So when Carter Hart went nearly a month without a win (0-5-2), it was understandable why his struggles played such a major role in the Flyers’ recent rocky road.
Just when it seemed like Hart had hit bottom, along came the most unlikely of events: The netminder took on the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins, crafted a masterpiece and led the Flyers to a 2-1 shootout win in the Steel City on Thursday night.
Hart, who took his first shootout victory of the season (1-4), made saves on two of three shots – including one from Sidney Crosby – to register the decision at PPG Paints Arena.
Sean Couturier scored the deciding goal in the tiebreaker, executing a semi-Denis Savard “spin-a-rama’’ move and roofing a shot past a bewildered Pittsburgh netminder Tristan Jarry.
The victory kept the Flyers within six points of fourth-place Boston and three of the fifth-place New York Rangers.
This game also marked the debut of 23-year-old rookie Wade Allison, who generated several high-percentage scoring chances.
If the Flyers are going to make any noise in their last 13 games, they’re going to need the kind of stellar play Hart offered on Thursday night.
A few weeks back, coach Alain Vigneault sat Hart for two games, a respite which lasted the better part of a week, to give the 22-year-old some time to work on his game in practice.
He’s shown some improvement in spots since then. In this game, he only gave up a goal to Crosby on a broken play.
Vigneault looked relieved during a post-game media Zoom call after the Flyers finally won their 20th game of the season.
He praised Hart’s effort.
“I thought we did what we had to do to give our goaltending – and tonight it was Carter – a chance,’’ Vigneault said. “In the second period, they had some counters where Carter had to make some big saves.
“(In the shootout) Carter gave us two big saves there. This was a real solid goaltending performance.’’
Hart seemed to play with confidence, challenging the Pittsburgh shooters when he could.
“I’ve been feeling good,’’ he said. “Having fun. To get the extra point – in the last few (tiebreakers) we haven’t been very good. We’re all pumped.’’
Hart knows what’s at stake in the final month of the season.
“It’s a huge two points,’’ Hart said. “We’re right at crunch time here. Every game from here on in is huge.’’
Jake Voracek scored early in the second period to pull the Flyers even and Hart took it from there.
>A rare win in the shootout
Believe it or not, this was the first time the Flyers had ever beaten the Penguins in a shootout, going zero for five before this success.
Actually, it is believable because the Flyers are the worst team in the history of the shootout.
Both Couturier and Claude Giroux executed sensational moves. Giroux opened the Flyers scoring with a brilliant stop, go and sweep around past Jarry.
“That was pretty ridiculous,’’ said a smiling Hart. “Coots, I thought he ran out of room there. Then he shelfs it. First time I’ve seen him do that one, those were both skill plays. . .they’re both skill players.
“You see them work at it in practice. They’re elite shootout guys.’’
Couturier is three for five this season in shootout tries.
>Allison stands out
Playing on a fourth line with Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, Allison really imposed himself on the game.
He took shifts, tied Joel Farabee for the most shots with four, and generated a strong forecheck.
“For a player coming in and not having practiced with us, I would say he was strong on the puck, goes to the net, had some opportunities,’’ Vigneault said. “It was a good start for him.’’
If Allison was suffering from any nerves, it didn’t show.
“Soon as you get your first shift in, it’s the same game of hockey,’’ said Allison, who has played eight games of pro hockey with the Phantoms. “I tried to keep my feet moving, tried to play my game, keep pushing.’’
After all the injuries Allison has been through the past three or four years, this night had to be gratifying.
“It’s been a long road, there’s been a lot of ups, a lot of downs,’’ he said. “But I did it. It’s pretty cool. It’s something I’ll remember forever. That’s something no one can ever take from me. Pretty special.’’
>Patrick OK after shot hits face
Nolan Patrick had to leave the game in the second period after getting struck on the side of his head by an errant entry off the stick of teammate Phil Myers.
Patrick, who missed all of last season due to a chronic migraine headache condition, was slow getting to his feet, went to the locker room and did not return.
Vigneault said he spoke to Patrick after the game and was told everything was OK.
Allison becomes the sixth member of the Flyers’ 2016 draft class to appear in a game for the team…..The Flyers entered the game third in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 52.9 percent. Giroux is ranked seventh. . .The Flyers take on Washington and the Islanders on Saturday-Sunday at home.