There are steps in the development of prospects. Some are more noticeable than others, but they exist.

Sometimes, we want to rush prospects along. Sometimes it’s more wise to let them percolate at lower levels of play until they’re ready.

Every athlete is different. Every one needs to develop in a unique way.

Over the years, countless sports executives have been telling people that prospects will let you know when they are ready.

But even when they are, are they really?

One never knows what happens to a player once he takes that step into the best league in the world for their sport.

Does he crumble under the pressure? Does he thrive for a bit and then flame out? Or does he meet the expectation of being a top level player that the organization was hoping he would?

Sometimes you know right away. Other times, there is a process. Usually, for goaltenders in the NHL, it’s more the latter and less the former.

Usually, goalies start hitting their prime around age 25. It allows the best goalies in the world to put together a true decade of consistently excellent play that gives their team a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup in most, if not all of those years.

Very rarely do you find goaltenders performing at an elite level before that.

Oh sure, there have been instances. And yes, some of the game’s greatest goalies debuted at a very young age and held their own enough to become the Hall of Fame caliber net minders they were.

But really, age 20-24 is usually reserved for development for goalies. Consider this – in the last 21 years in the NHL there have been 13 different men to win the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL. In only one instance of those 21 was the goalie under the age of 25 (Sergei Bobrovsky was 24 when he won in 2012-13, but keep in mind, that was a lockout-shortened campaign, which may or may not have played into it).

In fact, the average age of the goalie winning the Vezina in each of the past 21 seasons is 30.6.

Carter Hart is 20.

I’m pointing this out for a reason.

No, I don’t think we should start elevating Hart to Vezina-level expectations. Heck, the kid’s played 11 NHL games in his career.

And yes, I was on the “be patient” train when it came to Hart earlier this season – and in a lot of ways I still am.

But there was something that presented itself in Wednesday’s 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins  that had not been identifiable in the previous 10 games.

Answering a challenge.

Goalies have to do that from time to time. There are going to be games when the goalie relies on the team defense in front of him. There are going to be times when the ice is tilted and the goalie doesn’t get much action and doesn’t need to be sharp.

And then there are games where a goalie is going to have to flat out steal a game for his team.

All of these scenarios – and more – play out on a nightly basis in the NHL.

In Hart’s brief time in the league he’s dealt with a few of them. His first few games, the team went out of it’s way to protect him. There was tight defense, conservative play in their own end and a slew of blocked shots. It worked. It helped him quickly build confidence that he could play at this level.

He’s also dealt with adversity – getting pulled after a dreadful first period in Carolina – and having his butt saved by his teammates, despite allowing four goals – two of which he felt he should have stopped – in the Flyers 7-4 win against Minnesota on Monday.

And there have been a lot of games in the middle. Games where he’s played well, but the team lost. Games where he was just O.K. and the team won.

But there had been nothing like Boston.

The Bruins wore Hart out. He admitted to me after the game that he was tired and that it was exhausting facing so many shots.

“Normally it’s impossible to be focused for an entire 60 minutes,” he said. “You want to take little breathers during a game to kind of reset yourself and get ready the next time they come into the zone. But the way they play, you almost have to be focused the entire time. It’s really hard to do. They’re a very skilled team.”

But, at the same time, Hart said that he likes the workout. He likes being kept busy. He likes the opportunity to face a healthy dose of shots.

“It’s better than the alternative sometimes,” he said.

And he’s not wrong – on any front.

The Bruins are a good team. They eclipsed 40 shots in a game for the sixth time in their last 10 contests. And sometimes when there’s a lot of inactivity for a goalie, it’s easier to have a quick zone out and lapse into a bad habit – consider Sean Couturier’s hat trick goal on Jaroslav Halak:

Not facing many shots as his team was peppering Hart, Halak was slow getting his pads square to the ice and let this shot by Couturier through for what ended up being the game-winning goal.

On the other end, Hart was making save, after save, after save, after save.

For the first time in his short NHL career, Hart was going to win a game all by himself. He was going to win a game in which his team didn’t protect him. He was going to have to take that next developmental step and beat a team that was relentlessly coming at him.

“There’s a lot of… stuff…” he said to me before stopping himself. “I was going to say ‘shit,’ can I say that?”

Oh, to be 20-years-old again.

Once I confirmed to him that no one would think ill of him for saying it, he spoke freely.

“There’s a lot of shit that happens in hockey and there’s a lot of stuff you can’t control,” he said. “All the work you do, you do in practice. When it comes to a game, you just play. There’s a lot of situations that can develop in a game and you just have to play and adapt to it.”

He adapted all right. He adapted to the tune of 39 saves, the most in his young career.

It was some next level stuff.

And although coach Scott Gordon agreed with me that this was a developmental step – a step that Hart was going to have to take sooner or later on that long path toward trying to add his name to that aforementioned list of Vezina winners – he was more impressed with something else entirely when it came to Hart.

“They’re a hard team to play against and they throw a lot of pucks to the net,” Gordon said. “It’s not necessarily the shots that they’re taking that are the tough ones. It’s the rebounds or the ones that bounce of one of their players or our players and you have to react to that, I thought he handled that really well, especially the first time going through that.

“But for me, the best part of the game for Carter is to come off a game where he gave up four goals where even though we won he also had a couple (shots hit posts) and had a bit of a slow start. He was able to not only come into this game and play against a really tough opponent but also was our best player.”

Hart has already exceeded expectations for someone his age at this level. There are still little things he needs to work on to continue to fine tune his game and there’s no doubt he will.

And there’s sure to be more adversity. He’s yet to have a string of games go sour on him individually at once. He’s yet to deal with the pressure of carrying a team towards the playoffs and even have to steal a game that really matters in the standings, or, the Flyers hope down the road, in the playoffs.

There will be peaks and valleys, as there is for every goalie in the NHL. The best ones though, learn how to make the peaks hi and the valleys flat.

Hart took the first real step toward doing that on Wednesday.

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