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November 27, 2016

'I was able to relax, enjoy it' – Stolarz stands tall to earn win in NHL debut as Flyers roll

To me, seeing what it takes to play in this city, the pressure that’s been put on this kid and the way he’s handling it … he’s in a tough city, a tougher market. It’s going be interesting to see how it plays out. But from what I’ve observed, and watched, and listen I watch all of the games, I know it. As a rookie it’s not easy to play in a place like this, especially as an Eagle.

Those are the words last month from former Phillies All-Star outfielder Shane Victorino – easily the most popular Dallas Cowboys fan in Philadelphia sports history – used to describe why he’d take Carson Wentz over fellow rookie and Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott. But you can use the same logic – albeit it to a lesser degree – in characterizing the situation a rookie goalie enters making his NHL debut for a so-so Flyers team.

Anthony Stolarz, a 22-year-old New Jersey native and former second-round pick, made his first start on Sunday. The Flyers entered the night losers of three of their last four games and with just nine wins in 22 games in the season’s first six weeks.

Like most of the teams in the city, the Flyers are in the midst of a fairly long championship drought. The last time the Flyers won the Stanley Cup, Eric Lindros was two-years-old.

For the last half of those 40 years – probably since current general manager Ron Hextall left in the Lindros trade, or Pelle Lindbergh’s tragic death before that – the goalie position has been almost an annual problem.

While Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, and others led their teams to multiple Cup wins, the Flyers had a revolving door between the pipes, a door that would occasionally churn out a promising young net minder (remember a young Brian Boucher?) but never one who had the consistent, dominating staying power of the best goalies in the league.

So, uh, welcome to Philly, Anthony, and the very best of luck to you.

At least Day One was incredibly kind to the first kid from Jersey to play goalie in an NHL game. The Flyers held the sleepy Flames to just a dozen shots in the first 30 minutes of Sunday night’s game and gave Stolarz plenty of offensive support, too, in a 5-3 victory.

“I just wanted to give the team a chance to win,” said Stolarz, who played in front of 30-to-40 friends and family. “I didn’t care if I gave up one, two, three, four, six – well obviously you don’t want to give up six – but the biggest thing for me was just getting the win. 

"I just wanted to go out there, stop the puck and do my job. The guys in front of me did theirs. They did a good job of limiting shots, blocking them. That helps you relax a little bit.”

Stolarz didn’t have to do a whole lot in the first half of the game. The inactivity – something he's used to seeing from the bench in the half dozen games he's been the Lehigh Valley call-up asked to play the role of emergency backup – may have helped Calgary slip their second shot by the native of Jackson, N.J.

But in the game’s second half, when Stolarz was regularly tested, he responded as you’d hope a promising goalie prospect would.

“He worked his way in, settled in,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “There were some real good saves during the 60 minutes. It can be tough when that first one goes in. so if there’s one thing I like, it’s his poise and presence and focus, just to worry about the next save. That’s exactly what he did all night long. Heck of a night for the young man.”

The Flyers had a season-high 43 shots on goal.

After back-to-back losses bookended around Thanksgiving, including a one-goal loss to the New York Rangers on Black Friday, the Flyers fourth one-goal defeat this month, Hakstol’s team played with a different kind of energy against the Flames.

“Everybody just kept their foot on the gas, you know?” Hakstol said. “Right from the drop of the puck. Everyone chipped in. One of the keys we wanted to make sure we had was everybody skating and moving. From there everything seems to follow suit.”

It was the kind of effort from an entire team that was conducive to a rookie goalie having success in his first NHL start.

“No question, guys were playing hard for Stolie,” Hakstol said. It’s a special night for a guy to get his first start in the National Hockey League. And along with that there’s a lot more to it with our team, we’re coming off a couple of pretty good performances where we have nothing to show for it. Pretty good wasn’t going to be enough tonight. I thought we came very close to playing a full 60-miute hard hockey game.”

“I think I settled in after the first goal, I calmed down a little bit, the jitters went away,” said Stolarz, who saw the Flyers score four unanswered goals after the Flames took a 1-0 lead in the first. “I was just able to go out there and play.”

Stolarz, the benefactor to a team-wide effort, made 29 saves on Sunday night. He became the first Flyers goalie to win in his NHL debut since Rob Zepp in Dec. of 2014.

“To be able to win your first start is huge, it kind of gets you a little more comfortable,” Stolarz said. “I think in my pro debut in the American (Hockey) League I don't think I won in the first five games. You kind of press a little bit and it’s in the back of your head, ‘When are you going to win one, when are you going to win one?’ So to win the first game it’s huge for my confidence.”

Perhaps Stolarz won’t have to wait for another 26 games to get another start.

The 45th overall pick (and fourth goalie selected) in the 2012 draft, it took Stolarz some time to get from the hallways of Jackson Memorial High School (where he played as a sophomore before joining the Corpus Christi IceRays) to the crease inside an NHL rink. Stolarz was recalled from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms six times prior to this season, but never left the bench.

An injury to Michal Neuvirth created a real opportunity on his seventh trip to the Flyers, however, and after watching Steve Mason for six games, his opportunity arrived on Sunday.

“He was outstanding today,” Jakub Voracek said. “He made himself big when he needed to, made some huge saves in the second period when the game was 3-1. That was really important for us. It was good to see him get that first win.”

After a sleepy first period for the rookie, the Flames made a push to drum up a competitive game late in the second period, not long after the Flyers scored a pair of goals in a 24-second span to take a 4-1 lead. But Stolarz was ready.

With five minutes remaining in the second, Stolarz easily batted away a tough backhand shot. Later, he used his 6-foot-6 frame to sprawl out and thwart another Calgary scoring attempt.

“Getting a little flurry like that you get into it,” he said. “The biggest thing I felt was the traffic in front, it’s a lot different compared to the American (Hockey) League, guys are bigger, everything happens a lot faster. Once I was able to fight through that and make a couple of saves I got on a roll.”

The defensemen in front of him helped, too, whether it was clearing a loose puck near the goal or a tough rebound, or limiting shots in general. The offense was constant, too, giving the rookie plenty of support.

It wasn’t the kind of game where the goalie was asked to carry a team. Those will come.

It was, however, the perfect environment for Stolarz to comfortably get into an NHL game first the first time, and thrive.

“Once we scored the fifth goal you kind of get that sigh of relief, you don’t have to think too much, the guys gave you a little cushion,” Stolarz said. “That was huge for me. The last eight or so minutes I was able to relax, go out there and just enjoy it. I’d peak at the clock every once in a while and hope it’d click down faster.”

One down, perhaps a long and productive career to go.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21