Early in January Anthony Stolarz signed a two-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks. He was quickly assigned to the taxi squad, where he practiced full-time with the team, but be the backup to the backup. Essentially if starting goalie John Gibson, or backup Ryan Miller were to be sick or get injured he would be ready to get on the ice.
In a matter of weeks, Stolarz was sent to the Ducks’ American Hockey League team, San Diego Gulls where he would be part of a four-goalie rotation. Ducks coach, Dallas Eakins had made it clear to him that he was in a tough spot and it was looking like he was not going to play any games this season with two healthy goalies.
“Gibson has been the busiest goalie in the NHL this season, starting 23 of the Ducks’ first 29 games. Despite recording three shutouts, his numbers have been down this season with a .894 save percentage and 3.11 goals-against average both the worst marks of his career.”
For weeks it seemed like the Ducks were playing mind games with Stolarz as he was sent back and forth from the AHL to the taxi squad back to the AHL. Until his patience and consistent commitment paid off. Unfortunately at the cost of the Ducks star goalie, Gibson, suffering a lower-body injury in the middle of March.
Gibson Gets Injured Again
Gibson missed six games due to that injury, with Miller taking his starting spot and Stolarz stepping out of the taxi limbo and into the backup position. With Miller not doing so well as the starter, Gibson bounced back from his injury for one glorious game against the San Jose Sharks, where he had 33 saves on 34 shots on goal.
Throughout the game you could feel Gibson was in his element and excited to be back, making crazy glove, split, and stick saves. On the outside, it seemed that Gibson was back on top and Stolarz would be sent yet again to the AHL. But Gibson had suffered yet another injury this time to his upper body that night.
Turning Point for Stolarz
This injury opened the door for Stolarz as he was named the starter and Miller as his backup for the next game against the Blues. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound goalie looked intimidating for the Blues, having this game be only his second start of the season, the Ducks had to make sure to have their defense game on point.
That night the Blues kept Stolarz on his toes, but he stayed steady in the second with 21 shots on him, with multiple breakaways and solid glove saves. That night the tensions were high as they headed into OT with lots of chatter at the glass at the end of the third. But the Ducks felt the momentum, and Stolarz stayed strong as he got the assist for the OT-winning goal along with 38 saves that night.
Gibson only missed three games due to that injury, sending Stolarz yet again back to the AHL. Only Gibson would go on to lose three out of four of his next games, allowing ten goals against him. Head Coach Dallas Eakins unexpectedly called upon Stolarz to attempt to switch the pace for the series against the San Jose Sharks.
Stolarz Shines Against Sharks
Stolarz did just that in the first game of the series, he shut the Sharks out with a career-high of 46 saves. He was almost able to shut them out again in the second game, with 28 saves and only one goal allowed. Eakins was very pleased with his performance and went on to say,
“He showed up and had another really good performance. It’s a feel-good story the last few days, that’s for sure. I think the most important thing is how much his teammates have been cheering for him,” Eakins said. “They understand the challenges of the season, especially for the guys who have been on that taxi squad all year.
With not only the head coach’s support, but his fellow teammates’ love and appreciation, this gives Stolarz the further confidence to keep his head up and to not be discouraged by the constant moving from the taxi squad or to the AHL. Also knowing that he is being acknowledged and recognized for future games in hopes to have a more consistent spot with Anaheim. With the light shining bright on Stolarz, this brings pressure to the main goalie Gibson.
On Friday night, the Honda Center’s first night having fans back, Gibson had a tough time against the Vegas Golden Knights. He allowed four goals, and although he made 47 saves, it will be interesting to see who will take the goalie spot on Sunday night against Vegas. We look forward to seeing the Ducks finish out their season strong, with only eleven games remaining for them, this is a great opportunity for Stolarz to continue to prove to the team that he is a strong contender for next season as either a starter or a solid back up goalie.
Caitlin Roche is a freelance writer covering the Anaheim Ducks and trades across the league here at The Hockey Writers.
You can also catch her in front of the camera for California Prospect League, covering collegiate baseball.
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