During the recent world under-17 tournament in Fort St. John, B.C., Everett Silvertips GM Garry Davidson took a break in between scouting games to get a bite to eat.
The timing was perfect. The first game of the Canada-Russia Series was on TV and Silvertips goaltender Carter Hart in net.
Davidson only caught the first 12 minutes before he had to return to his duties. That’s all he really needed to see.
Hart stopped breakaways from Russians Vladislav Kara, Artyom Manukyan and Maxim Tsyplakov by the midway point of the first period, allowing the WHL all-stars to settle in. They’d eventually rout Russia 7-0.
Davidson was hardly surprised.
“If he doesn’t do that, that game probably would have been a tough one to win,” he said. “That’s what he does. He does that for us on a regular basis.”
As Davidson hints, turning aside three clear-cut chances provides just a snapshot of why Canada is entrusting Hart with protecting its net at the upcoming world junior championship.
Hart is aiming to upgrade the silver medal he won at last year’s tournament. If his play in the WHL is any indication, he’s on the right track.
Hart is having a season for the ages with the Silvertips. He’s 13-3-1 with a 1.32 goals-against average and .961 save percentage. He’s shut out his opponents five times.
And, to think, his numbers would likely be even more impressive had he not been slowed by mononucleosis. Hart was sidelined for the entire month of October as he lost 20 pounds and was sapped.
“I just slept for 13 or 14 hours a day and tried to recover as fast as I could,” Hart said. “I feel pretty much 100 per cent now.”
Hart packed the weight back on by carb loading. Pasta was the food of choice. The Sherwood Park, Alta., native is back to his six-foot-two, 185-pound frame.
Silvertips goaltending coach Shane Clifford aided Hart in his recovery on the ice. Hart is meticulous in his personal health from proper nutrition right down to when to take naps and for how long. He’s also a great athlete and has the best VO2 max score on the Silvertips.
But he was so fatigued at first on-ice sessions that he could only skate twice around the rink without being too tired to continue. One day, Hart and Clifford had to resort to shooting pucks from the net at one end of the rink to the other.
“He’d be so tired he couldn’t even stand up, but he’d still go out there and do a workout,” said Clifford, a former Pittsburgh Penguins goalie coach who compares Hart’s temperament to Marc-Andre Fleury’s.
“When he was tired there was no complaining. He showed up to the rink to try to do what he could do to move through his and get better. His attitude was awesome every day.”
The Canada-Russia Series contest on Nov. 6 was just Hart’s third game back.
According to Clifford, the 19-year-old goalie wasn’t even at full strength yet. But was able to hide it because of his mechanics.
“He’s played so much that I think the game’s slowed down for him a little bit,” Clifford said. “His ability to read a play has gotten that much better. When you’re that skilled and you can read a play, when you put those things together, you can stop a lot of pucks.”
That’s what will be expected of Hart during the upcoming world junior championship as he’s expected to see most of the action in net for Canada.
The 2018 tournament also provides a chance for him to make amends for last year’s event, which he calls “up and down.”
Hart entered as the starter, but allowed three goals on 17 shots to Russia. By the medal round, he was on the bench. Hart was only called into action when Connor Ingram gave up two goals on three shots in the semifinal against Sweden.
With Hart in net for the final, Canada lost 5-4 in a shootout to the United States.
“Against the Russians, I didn’t play my best. I feel after that I settled in,” Hart said. “I got my chance to come in against the Swedes. I just didn’t look back and took what I had and had to make the most of the opportunity that I got.
“It was disappointing to lose out in the shootout like that to the Americans in the final. But I think that definitely adds fire to our group this year.”
Added Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme, also the bench boss last year: “You cannot buy experience. So, to be able [to go] through once I think is a big advantage. He knows the tournament now.
“He’s having a great season. All that baggage that he’s got now, I’m sure he’s going to use it properly. I’m sure he’s going to be one of the key guys for us. We’re not relying only on one guy. It’s going to be a team success. I’m sure he’s going to be part of it.”
Goaltending is so crucial at the world juniors and a Canadian hasn’t taken home top honours for the position since Steve Mason in 2008. Perhaps not surprisingly, Canada only has two gold medals since then (2009 and 2015).
Team Canada doesn’t project to have the same level of offensive firepower as countries like Sweden (Elias Pettersson – VAN), Finland (Eeli Tolvanen – NSH), or the United States (which could feature a top line of Kailer Yamamoto – EDM, Logan Brown – OTT, and Casey Mittelstadt – BUF).
Hart, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, could be the great equalizer.
“He puts his pads on to win hockey games,” Clifford said.
“Ever since he’s come back, his record speaks for itself. He’s done real well for himself,” Flyers assistant GM and director of player personnel Chris Pryor said. “It’s a good time of year to feel good about your game going into the world juniors.”
To say Hart’s feeling good about his game now is probably even selling it short.
The Silvertips started the season 4-9 without him. They’re now 21-13-1-1 and in first place in the competitive U.S. Division.
As a result, Davidson said he has no interest in trading Hart by the WHL deadline even though the haul he’d receive would be massive.
The Silvertips are a different team with Hart in the lineup this season. He’s sure Canada will be, too.
“I’ve seen the stretches in the past that he’s in right now. This one seems to be each and every night,” Davidson said.
“He’s so confident, so mature, and he’s very focused right now. I think he’s going to do a great job for them.”