PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Hockey people say there are three absolutes to existence; death, taxes, and the Philadelphia Flyers' futile search for a true number one, elite goaltender.
When the club's early-season defensive struggles lingered on past the regular season's first month, the team's pundits were having a field day. Beat writers and bloggers from outside the Philadelphia area were going on their usual anti-Steve Mason tirades, and fans of the Flyers were taking to social media to vent how GM Ron Hextall needed to make a move to find a bonafide netminder.
Mason admits he didn't have the greatest start to the campaign, but the flood of goals allowed were more attributable to the Flyers' horrific play in their own end than it was a goalie issue.
After an October 29 start against the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins in which Mason yielded three goals in the span of 55 seconds to erase 2-0 lead in what had been a rare good start by the team, head coach Dave Hakstol decided to ride Michal Neuvirth.
Neuvirth had played well during the first round of the postseason the previous spring – especially when he stole Game 5 in a spectacular 44-save shutout performance against the Washington Capitals in an elimination game when the Flyers were thoroughly and completely outplayed -- and with both ends of the goaltending tandem due to become unrestricted free agents next summer, Mason’s future in Philly appeared to be becoming somewhat blurry.
As has been the case with the hockey gods from time-to-time having to save the Flyers from themselves regarding their decisions regarding the men between the pipes, Neuvirth’s left knee was injured during the first period of a November 12 start against the Minnesota Wild, an injury that put him on the shelf for 4-6 weeks.
At the time, both goalies had been lugging around some miserable numbers; though Neuvirth had a winning record at 4-2-0, his goals-against average was a staggering 3.54 and his save percentage was only .859, while Mason brandished a 3-5-0 record, with a 3.51 GAA and .880 save percentage.
Anthony Stolarz was recalled from the club’s AHL affiliate in Allentown -- to serve as Mason’s backup -- and depending on the caliber of Mason’s play, would probably get his chance at his first NHL action.
Stolarz did get a start (and won), but Mason has been lights out fantastic in helping to right a Flyers ship that had great similarities to the Titanic.
After going a perfect 4-0-0 with a 1.71 GAA and a .945 save percentage during the week ending December 4, Mason received NHL honors by being named the league’s First Star of the Week.
More importantly, Mason’s play has led to the first Flyers five-game winning streak since the 2013-14 season and catapulted the club from what was looking more and more like a non-playoff year into the first wild card spot.
It’s still very early on in the campaign, but his recent run is reminiscent of when the netminder was the primary reason his team even qualified for the 2015-16 postseason, when he carried the Flyers on his back down the stretch.
And as is always the case, Mason deflected the praise.
“It’s a great honor,” he said of being named the NHL’s First Star. “Obviously there’s so many great players throughout the league that can have great weeks from time to time. I think as a whole the team’s on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that with the strong play in front of me.”
His teammates have vastly improved on the welcome mat that had been placed in front of the blue paint in front of Mason for opponents early in the campaign, but there have still been breakdowns, and Mason has been the great equalizer to erase those gaffes.
“I think the team as a whole is just playing a little bit tighter in our defensive zone as of late and making the goaltender’s read that much more simple,” he added.
Hakstol has proven that he loves to go with the hot hand, and a s a result Mason has started in 10 of the 11 contests since Neuvirth was lost. Some goalies feel burn out coming on when they are in net every night, but Mason has always made it clear he prefers it this way.
“Right now,” he said, “I think there’s a real comfort level with the guys in front of me just because of the amount of hockey I’ve played lately, and I’m looking forward to keeping it moving. Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making ground in the standings.
“I don’t think it’s any goaltender’s goal to play in a tandem. Everybody wants to be a number one guy who plays night in and night out, and that’s exactly what my goal is here and moving forward. I think continued strong play will help with that.”
The goaltender feels one of the main reasons for the team’s early struggles was due to growing pains, as some youngsters grabbed huge responsibilities out of training camp and had to become familiar with the system Hakstol was attempting to employ.
“I think we had some young guys that were coming into the lineup and playing big minutes, and there were going to be growing pains,” Mason said. “I think it’s just to be familiar with everybody and have a constant lineup than when guys go out shift after shift, night after night, you know what to expect from one another. When you have that kind of confidence in the guys, it makes playing that much easier. It’s the times when you’re not trusting one another that you’re going to get into trouble.”
The amount of wide open back door goals being allowed after tic-tac-toe passing plays have been cut down significantly. The biggest overall improvement Mason feels his club has made from the disastrous October and November outings has been the way the Flyers have been performing on a night-in, night-out basis.
“I think it’s just we’re starting to find consistency we’ve been looking for for so long,” he said. “I think we still have areas to improve upon, but I think in the last handful of games especially, we see the effort level is there – not just in the offensive zone, but in the defensive zone. If we take care of our zone the way we have been the last few nights, we’re going to be in a lot better position. The league is so good that if the effort level isn’t there, and the compete and all that, to bring that consistency, the effort level, I think we’ll be in a good spot moving forward here if we can keep it up.”
It couldn’t have been a worse start to the year for Mason -- and that was a major problem for him with free agency looming at season’s end -- but part of the reason he’s been so successful since that time is because he’s readjusted his focus.
“It being a contract year, you want to have a strong year,” he admitted. “Just like any other year, but there’s obviously more emphasis with the talk of the contract and everything. I’ve done a pretty good job of blocking that out of my mind right now, and whatever happens, happens. If Philly wants to have me here long-term, that would be awesome, but at the end of the day, I’m not really focusing on that right now. The main focus right now is just to continue helping the team out here.”
Even with the bad start, Mason has at least gotten his overall numbers closer to what had been expected. It took him some time, but he’s gotten his save percentage back over .900 (.904) – and his .920 is the second-best in franchise history to Roman Cechmanek’s .923 since it began being kept as an official NHL stat – to go along with a 9-8-3 record and 2.76 GAA.
Those who support Neuvirth as the number one guy have to remember he has not been able to stay healthy in any of his NHL stops, and cannot be counted on to be the guy you can ride through the entirety of a regular season and playoffs.
Philadelphia’s big offensive contributions from the likes of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds aside, Mason continues to prove he’s the backbone of the club, despite the outcry from those who don’t watch the Flyers on a nightly basis.
While the critics continue to say the Flyers will never win another Stanley Cup until they improve the quality of their starting goaltending, Steve Mason continues to give a reminder that Philly already has their guy in place.
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.