Carter Hart will start in goal for the Philadelphia Flyers against the Washington Capitals at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, NBCSP, NBCSWA, NHL.TV).
The 20-year-old rookie will play for the first time since Feb. 21 against the Montreal Canadiens. He sustained an ankle injury during the morning skate but tried to play through it and was pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots in the first period.
Hart was the backup to Brian Elliott for the Flyers' 3-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Monday. It was his first time in the lineup since the injury.
"I'm just excited to get back into a game," Hart said after practice Tuesday. "I know it's been a little while. ... It was good to get back into the game lineup. Even though I wasn't playing, just kind of getting into the rhythm of warming up again and being around the guys again felt good."
Hart is 13-8-1 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 22 games. The Flyers (34-27-8) were 6-1-1 in Hart's absence with Elliott starting seven of the eight games and Cam Talbot the other. They are five points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Capitals (41-22-7) are in first place in the Metropolitan Divsion, two points ahead of the New York Islanders.
"This is probably as close to being in the playoffs as actually being in," Flyers coach Scott Gordon said. "They're all Game 7s, really. Or pretty close to it."
Gordon said he opted to use Hart on Thursday, and Elliott against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Center on Friday, to make it easier for Hart to prepare.
"I looked at probably more of what would be best for Carter as far as routine-wise," Gordon said. "He's getting some work in today, practice tomorrow, pre-game skate, so that's a normal routine for a guy that would be playing under normal circumstances, as opposed to having to travel, no pregame skate [Friday]. I think from a comfort standpoint probably would be easier for him to go through that routine then go through that routine of having him play his first game back on the road."
The game will have extra meaning for Hart with Braden Holtby expected to start in goal for the Capitals. They share the same mental skills coach, John Stevenson, and Hart related a story about Holtby calling him after Hart and Canada lost in the final of the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship to offer encouragement.
"That was really cool for him to do that," Hart said in July. "Just to hear from him after the World Juniors, to hear from a guy like that who's an established NHL goaltender, one of the best, was pretty cool for sure."