PHILADELPHIA — Cal Heeter put his head down. And over on the bench, Ray Emery stood up.
To that point, only 20 minutes, 17 seconds into the game, Heeter had given up four goals on 14 shots. It wasn’t a good first impression for the 25-year-old goalie, who had been tapped to make his NHL debut in the Flyers’ regular-season finale.
From then on, every stop of a trivial shot earned the kid a Bronx cheer, with each one getting subsequently louder.
“Love and hate,” Heeter said. “They love you when you’re making saves, hate you when you’re not. You can’t hold it against them. I’d be the same way if I was in the stands.”
Heeter stayed in, ignoring Emery’s stretching sessions at the mouth of the tunnel long enough to give the Flyers a chance Sunday. They forced overtime before eventually falling to Carolina, 6-5, in a shootout.
It wasn’t pretty. The same could be said for the Flyers’ postseason goaltending situation, should Steve Mason be unavailable.
Mason left Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh with what the Flyers termed “an upper-body injury.” There was no formal update issued on his behalf, though Flyers coach Craig Berube sounded optimistic that his initial diagnosis – that Mason could be ready for his team’s playoff opener Thursday night – will stand.
“Yeah, I do,” Berube said. “He’s fine. I mean, he’s doing better. That’s all I know. He’s doing better.”
Mason looked OK on his feet as he walked a few steps onto the ice Sunday. Granted, he wasn’t on skates when he smiled and posed for a few pregame pictures, after picking up the Gene Hart Trophy. But it had to be viewed as a good sign, nonetheless.
As for Heeter’s debut, uhh, not so much.
Sure, he rebounded from his early-game pitfalls. (After one period, he had a .666 save percentage. That’s something of a bad omen.) And he pieced together a stretch of 17 consecutive saves, after relinquishing four goals on the Hurricanes’ first 14 shots.
Heeter’s teeter-totter premier brought to light the Flyers’ imperiled goaltender state. No matter how dramatic or how unexpected Heeter’s turnaround was in his first NHL game, the Flyers cannot expect a lengthy postseason run with a backup goaltender and an AHL starter.
“In my dreams, I’d say I didn’t give up six goals,” Heeter said, unable to wipe a grin from his face. “It’s a fabulous experience. I’ve been working my whole life to get to here and to finally get the opportunity to play a game and to have the support of the management, players, coaches, fans, everybody here … it’s a dream come true. I had a great time. Yeah, things didn’t go the way I wanted or (the way) anyone wanted, but I still have a smile on my face. I accomplished a part of my dream, but you can’t become complacent. You always have to keep working or this will be your last game.”
Heeter demonstrated a degree of grit in battling through an awful first period. Then, when Eric Staal scored his second goal of the game, only 17 seconds into the second period, it looked as though Heeter’s day was numbered.
It was at that point when Emery stood from his position at the end of the Flyers’ bench, removed his ballcap and began stretching in the tunnel. Then Heeter made a save. And another. And another. Heeter got in front of 11 shots in all to keep the Hurricanes stuck at four goals through two periods. Berube said he had no desire to insert Emery into the game, a meaningless one against a team that had an early appointment with the offseason.
“Maybe he was antsy,” Berube said of Emery.
The Flyers might need a well-rested Emery for their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against New York, which begins Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Should Mason be unavailable, at least in the early going of that series, it was imperative that Heeter stick out Sunday’s game to prevent Emery from enduring unnecessary minutes.
Heeter did just that. He held serve the rest of the second period, allowing the Flyers to score twice in a span of 10 seconds – with a power-play tally from Kimmo Timonen and an even-strength wrister from Wayne Simmonds. Sean Couturier leveled things at 4-all three minutes later.
Jeff Skinner would go on to score his second of the game, temporarily pushing Carolina ahead in the third period, before Simmonds and the extra-skater Flyers tallied with 10 seconds to go.
Not exactly the kind of performance Heeter would like to remember. Maybe, in the Flyers’ worst-case scenario, he gets a chance at redemption in the postseason. At one point of Heeter’s near meltdown, Claude Giroux tapped Heeter on the pads and issued some advice.
“He said, ‘Calm down. Smile. Have some fun. Enjoy your time. It’s not the end of the world,’” Heeter recalled. “Their playoff position was secured. There was nothing really on the line.”