|Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tony Androckitis - Twitter/Facebook
Fresh off his long-awaited NHL debut, goaltender Anthony Stolarz returned to practice with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this week both satisfied with the way he performed in his first NHL action and eager to get back into a rhythm with the Phantoms.
"It was a good experience," the 6-foot-6 goaltender said of his first stint with the Philadelphia Flyers in which he saw game action. "My biggest thing was I just wanted to get in games, kind of go out and show that I can play at that level. When I got in my first game I was really excited, a little nervous at the start, but all I wanted to do was get out of there with a win. The rest of the time I just took it day by day and just tried to work hard and improve my game."
While it certainly couldn't come soon enough for Stolarz - after being called up nearly 10 times before seeing his first NHL game - it was certainly worth the wait. The Edison, New Jersey native went 2-0 in four appearances with Philadelphia in his most recent NHL stint - picking up his first win in his first start in a 5-3 home victory over the Calgary Flames back on November 27th. He followed that up two weeks later with his first career NHL shutout in a 1-0 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings.
"I was definitely happy with the way I played. The guys played tremendous in front of me, and really helped me out," Stolarz recalled. "They just told me to go out there and enjoy it - the first couple games - to take it all in. At the same time, it's your job to stop the puck and I just tried my best to keep them in the game."
Stolarz said he was glad to get his first NHL win out of the way quickly - the "monkey off his back" - noting he went 0-3 to begin his pro career with the Phantoms during his rookie season before picking up his first career pro win - a 36-save shutout of the then-Worcester Sharks on November 14th, 2015.
The writing was on the wall for Stolarz in Philadelphia, with injured goaltender Michal Neuvirth returning to the ice and getting closer to being activated off of injured reserve. That happened earlier this week.
"Everyone knew it was coming," Stolarz said of his coming back to the AHL with Neuvirth healthy and activated from injured reserve. "My job now is to help the Phantoms get into the playoffs. That's been one of my goals from the start of the season." .
Phantoms' head coach Scott Gordon said he wasn't surprised to see Stolarz perform well while with Philadelphia.
"I've seen goalies from the AHL go up and have results," Gordon said after Wednesday's practice in Whitehall. "I think the world of Stolie. I think, to me, when he was the All-Star goalie last year I thought he was the best goaltender in the American [Hockey] League." This isn't a discredit to Matt Murray but I saw Murray when we played against them. In hindsight, I don't think I can say I'd pick Matt Murray over Stolie because he won the Stanley Cup but at that point from what I had seen of Stolie versus all the goalies, I thought he was the best goalie."
Now that Stolarz is back, Gordon will have to figure out how to keep both him and rookie netminder Alex Lyon engaged moving forward. Lyon had played just about every game for Lehigh Valley in Stolarz's absence, improving to 14-6-2 with one shutout - which at the time of Stolarz's reassignment had Lyon tied for the league's lead in wins among AHL goaltenders.
"They're both going to play," Gordon reaffirmed, adding, "At the end of the day, it's not good for anyone to play every single game as a goalie. We had an opportunity to give Alex a lot of ice time knowing eventually that Neuvirth was going to be back. So when Stolie comes back here, he'll get his share of games and we'll still play Alex - he's shown that he can play and he's played well. We're fortunate that we have two guys that can do the job."
For Stolarz, he's eager to get back into game action again - expected to start Friday night in Hartford when the Phantoms take on the WolfPack at 7:15 p.m. ET. It would mark Stolarz's first AHL start in net since November 12th, with his last NHL action coming on December 30th in San Jose after an apparent hand ailment caused Flyers' starter Steve Mason out of the game.
"The guys played well while I was up there. Now that I'm back I want to get into a rhythm here and get some games in, and just have fun and enjoy it," Stolarz said. "It's exciting to be back, I'm looking forward to it - I kind of missed the guys a little bit. Just happy to be able to play games again."