Carter Hart turns in perfect night coming off the bench

“We’ll see,” coach Dominique Ducharme said.

That was Monday, when Ducharme was asked about the starting goalie against Sweden that was to be played two nights hence.

Wednesday night, Ducharme tapped Connor Ingram for the start but the coach saw all he needed in a little over eight minutes and a total of three shots, just one of them stopped by Ingram.

When I asked an NHL scout about Ducharme’s decision to start Ingram against the Czech Republic in the quarter-final, his comeback was the brutal truth. “What it says to me is that he doesn’t have a No. 1 goalie,” the scout said.

 Well, after a 5-2 win over Sweden in the semis, Ducharme has one now: Carter Hart, the guy who started the game on the bench and finished it, accepting the Canadian player of the game award from Martin Brodeur. If he can stay virus-free, hale and healthy, Hart will get the start against the U.S. in the gold medal game Thursday night, no “We’ll-see” about it.

But first, to the goalie who worked oh-so-briefly.

You knew it was going to be a very short leash for Ingram against the Swedes, but really, Ducharme had no choice but to try to stop the bleeding and pull Ingram in favour of Hart.

The goals that he gave up were brutal almost beyond belief.

The Canadians had come out of the blocks with a level of intensity that they hadn’t really displayed except in patches through the opening round in the quarters against the Czechs. All the chances early were for the home team and the Swedes were reeling five minutes in when Sebastian Ohlsson took a tripping penalty. The Canadian power play was raining pucks on goaltender Felix Sandstrom for a full minute. The Swedish captain Joel Eriksson Ek was out on the kill, carried the puck up the right side through the neutral zone and lobbed a wrist shot from a couple of strides across the blue line.

Ingram whiffed and the visitors took a 1-0 lead, wholly against play.

Mitchell Stephens tied the game back up a couple of shifts later, cleaning up a loose puck after a wrap-around attempt by Anthony Cirelli and beating Sandstrom.

The Canadians’ course seemed to have been righted. For 22 seconds anyway.

What officials counted as the third and last Swedish shot on Ingram wasn’t really a shot, per se. Carl Gundstrom came in on the Canadian starter and didn’t stick handle the puck so much as he mishandled it. Or over-skated it. Or whatever. It trickled through Ingram. With that, Ducharme, who said, “We’ll see,” was now saying “J’ai vu assez.” I’ve seen enough.

Out came Ingram. Anyone who has a heart has to hope that this will not be the biggest of his life. We’ll have to wait to see how that plays out.

In came Hart. The legion of Canadian fans hoped that this strange and unscheduled entry into the fray would be the biggest and best 52 minutes of his life so far. And it turned out to be just that.

Folks in the hockey industry knew that Hart had gone to the selection camp as the clear favourite to be the starter for Canada in this tournament. When he struggled in the opening-game victory over Russia, giving up a couple of soft goals, people put it down to getting frozen—that with Canada dominating the Russians, Hart had seen so little action at the start of the game he wasn’t ready when needed, the first puck he saw beating him.

There was no slow build-up for Hart against Sweden, however. Barely a minute after he came into the game, Pierre-Luc Dubois took a fairly bone-headed tripping penalty and the Swedes went on the power play. In less than four minutes, Hart had to make six saves and a few would be categorized as tough. What’s more, he caught the puck or smothered it, giving up no second chances on rebounds. It was plain he was dialled in from the get-go and it was in these first few minutes he kept the game from getting away from the home side.

With a little over a minute left in the first period, Cirelli sniped an equalizer, top corner on Sandstrom’s glove side. The score was tied two-all but that had to feel as good as a two-goal lead for Canada after Ingram’s stumbles.

The two next goals by Canada, even-strength markers by Julien Gauthier and Dylan Strome, were no flukes. In fact, Sandstrom stole a couple away from Canadian forwards, including a shot and a rebound that had Tyson Jost hanging his head in disbelief. An empty net goal by Gauthier with two minutes remaining killed what little suspense was left. The Swedes had but four shots on net in the third.

Hart made 28 saves in all, a perfect night if you can set aside any wounded pride that goes with starting the game on the bench. There were tense moments—at one point in the second period, a puck dropped out of Hart’s glove and trickled onto the goal line where defenceman Dante Fabbro scooped it away, giving his goalie a chance to cover up. Jost was mostly very good, sometimes excellent, and when he was neither he caught breaks he didn’t against Russia.

After the game, Hart was asked if he expected to start against the U.S. Not much of a conversation starter but Hart ran with it nonetheless. “If I get the start, I’ll be ready to go,” he said. “If I don’t get the start I’ll be ready to go.”

We’ll see.

Article Written by Gare Joyce of Sportsnet