Somewhere in the bowels of the Flyers' organization exists a goaltender’s purgatory — a place of banishment that offers little hope, faith or guidance.
Only Anthony Stolarz knows how dark a place like that feels, but he simply refused to let those emotions overcome his disposition within the organization. Stolarz was never meant to see the inside of the Flyers' net this season, but crazy is a subtle way of describing the chain of events that have played out in the team's crease.
When the season started in Vegas, Stolarz was the low man on the totem pole, as in that part of the pole buried beneath the surface that provides stability for the rest of the pole. He was six guys deep at that time and clearly the forgotten man in the Flyers' stable of netminders.
“It crosses your mind, but at the end of the day, it is what it is,” Stolarz said. “For sure, you sit there and see the team out there and you want to be out there. As a goalie, it’s definitely tough. There’s only one spot. It definitely crosses your mind. It’s part of the business. I’m sure I’m not the first person to be put in that position.”
Assuming everyone had stayed healthy, Stolarz would still be fighting for practice reps in Lehigh Valley and wouldn’t be serving as the short-term solution for the Flyers. The firing of Ron Hextall opened up that small window of opportunity and Stolarz has seized it once Calvin Pickard was placed on waivers.
At the end of the day, I have a job to do and that’s to go out and prepare myself every day and continue to get better. Changes at the rink, it’s never easy. For me, it’s just nice to be here and proving I can play at this level.
With the frame of an NFL tight end (6-foot-6, 220 pounds), Stolarz is one of the most imposing figures in net — an intimidating presence for opposing shooters who can barely see any daylight with Stolarz positioned in the crease. Impressively, he’s quickly refined the areas of his game that were viewed as a weakness.
In Stolarz's first preseason start at Nassau Coliseum this season, Islanders rookie Kieffer Bellows scored a one-timer on a pass that came from behind the Flyers' net. Stolarz was unprepared for that rapid-fire play and lost his balance as the puck was fired into the net. Since then, when provided the opportunity, Stolarz has worked closely with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh to utilize his frame and react to those types of plays accordingly.
“The biggest thing over the last year that we’ve worked on is a double seal on the post,” Stolarz said. “If you watch when the puck’s behind the net, I can use my long limbs, I can keep my foot on both posts. If you look at guys like [Andrei] Vasilevskiy, [Sergei] Bobrovsky and [Pekka] Rinne, it’s what guys are doing. Plays happen so quick from behind the net that you want to force those guys to make a perfect shot, whether it’s upstairs or over the pad on you.”
Yet, Stolarz’s body of work pales in comparison to the body that’s now working for him. Impressively, he has scratched and clawed his way back despite very little time in the minors, just three starts last season with Reading in the ECHL and two starts with the Phantoms over the last year coming off surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
“You do what it takes to get that net and steal it from someone even if you have to take someone’s job,” Stolarz said. “For me, coming back from injury, I kind of just want to take it easy, just get your groove again, and I think I found it.”
“His confidence has really been impressive,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “He’s eager to take advantage of the opportunity. He’s not tight. I don’t think he’s overthinking things. He’s excited to play, and you can see that in his game.”
It has been assumed that Carter Hart is the future — the prospect who will backstop the franchise for the next 10-15 years. But as we’ve witnessed this season, that future is a difficult one to predict, much like the career of Stolarz, who was regarded as highly as Hart when he was selected 45th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft.
“Here we are a couple of weeks later and fortunes have changed,” Stolarz said. “As a goalie, it’s all about timing. For me, I felt really good the last three games since I’ve been in. Obviously, it’s not easy not playing earlier in the year, but it’s my job to prepare and take every rep in practice. Just to get these starts back-to-back is a big confidence booster. Now it’s up to me to grab the bull by the horns and run with it.”
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