Netminder Anthony Stolarz got a taste of “The Show”. And, while he was wearing a new uniform, he had the benefit of playing in familiar surroundings as the Philadelphia Flyers played the Toronto Maple Leafs in an exhibition game hosted at the Budweiser Gardens in London, ON — a venue that’s also home to Stolarz’s OHL squad, the London Knights.
“This was a special occasion,” he said. “Playing here last year, it was nice to have the home town behind me. It’s nice to come out here and play an exhibition game with the Flyers — it was a true honour.
“It was fantastic. I have a sense of comfort playing in this building — I played here last year. Going out there it was really nice to play a half here and really get a taste of NHL action.”
Stolarz took over midway through the second period, replacing another former Knight netminder, Steve Mason. After a shaky start, which saw him scored upon on his second shot faced, he settled down and steadied the Flyers en route to a one-goal loss.
“Going in, not playing the first half, it’s hard to get out there as a goalie, be cold, but stay sharp,” he said. “ I took a nice shot off the pad, but I left the rebound out there. After that I kind of settled in when they had a power-play.
“As a goalie, you want to move around a bit and get a lot of shots, so that really helped me.”
But don’t expect Stolarz to move around as much this year, he said. One of the biggest things he committed to improving was curbing his wayward ways.
“This summer I worked a lot on my positioning, staying back more and let the play come to me,” Stolarz said. “Last year I was a little aggressive and came out of my crease a little too much — I got caught out of position a few times. So I’m trying to work on my positioning and calm myself down.”
The 6’6 netminder has already been sent back to junior and will backstop the Knights en route to their hosting of the Memorial Cup. He feels the extended season will help in his development.
“Being able to play a long season, 90-some games, it’s going to get you ready for a professional schedule,” he said. “And having the Memorial Cup here, it teaches you how to play in high-pressure situations and how to play in high-pressure games.
“For me, as a goalie — goalies tend to be a focal point in those games, so as a goalie I just want to play in those games and hopefully take in the experience and use it in my professional career.”
Stolarz got a taste of it last season, when he joined the Knights at mid-season after leaving the University of Nebraska-Omaha squad over the Christmas break. He appeared in 33 games last year, both in the regular season and playoffs. But if you had asked him last year at this time if he would be wearing the black and orange of the Flyers, he’d have laughed.
“Going to college, you expect to stay there for as long as you can — hopefully all four years, but things just didn’t work out,” he said. “Going to London gave me that opportunity to play — and now in NHL exhibition games — you get to take part in training camps.
“For me, I’m just taking it all in and enjoying the experience, getting to know the guys and being in that kind of professional environment. It really wants to make you elevate your game and I’m going to bring that back to London and have a great year here.”
The Flyers organization has had some challenges between the pipes over the years. Stolarz said he wants to show the club, both with his performance in camp and throughout the year, that their faith in him is justified.
“I just want to live up to my status as a second-round pick,” he said. “It’s kind of a high-profile selection, especially for a goalie. I just want to go out there and prove Philly right, show them that I was worth taking that high.”
Like many junior players, the size and speed of the players at the professional level has been eye-opening. But these lessons are going to benefit him in the OHL, Stolarz explained.
“The biggest thing for me is the bodies in front. You look out and everyone’s big — there’s always traffic and you have to fight through it. There were a couple of pucks that I didn’t even see that went wide. You have to battle hard and track that puck down,” he said. “It really makes you know what you have to work on and what you have to focus on when you come back to juniors. For me, I really have to focus on the traffic.
“I’m going to want to go back to junior, see every puck, track every puck, and make the stops. Having the opportunity to play here, I couldn’t have asked for anything else.”
And now that he’s suited up for the Flyers, there’s no turning back, he said.
“To get that little taste and that little bit of action — it just makes you want more and makes you work harder.”
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