March 29, 2018 | 11:49am ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
CROWDED IN THE CREASE
Petr Mrazek, goaltender
Montreal, QC -- “It’s the age old question to me Anthony, but who starts (in goal) in Game One of the Stanley Cup playoffs if the Flyers make it?”
That was the question that Nick Alberga asked me when I joined him this past Saturday on “Off the Rush” on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio on Saturday. To further warrant Nick’s question, it truly is the narrative that never dies when it comes to Philadelphia: who is their “go-to” guy between the pipes?
Since the 2005 NHL lockout, the Flyers have had a never ending list of goaltenders to start for the team in the playoffs. Over that time, Robert Esche, Martin Biron, Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ray Emery, Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have all started playoff games (in that chronological order) for the Flyers. Save for Bobrovsky, who has taken his career to new heights with the Columbus Blue Jackets, none of those goaltenders have done anything of significance since their respective playoff starts (see the trend of quality?).
So as we approach the playoffs in less than two weeks, and the Flyers continue to fight to secure a playoff spot (sitting in the first Wild Card with 90 points heading into Wednesday night’s match up against the Colorado Avalanche), the question still remains: who will start game one for the Flyers should they make it to the post-season?
If this question were to be tackled two months ago, the undisputed answer would have been Brian Elliott.
Elliott, who hasn’t played since Feb.10, was starting the lion’s share of games for the Flyers at the time of his injury. He went through a magnificent stretch from early December until mid-January. During that time, Elliott started 15 consecutive games (largely due to an injury to Michal Neuvirth), in which he won 10. Despite having mediocre numbers (.908 save percentage, 2.72 GAA) on the year due to a lack luster start to the season, Elliott’s play has been solid for the majority of the year, as his record is a solid 21-11-7.
When Elliott got hurt, the reigns were given to Neuvirth to shoulder most of the load until the former was ready to return from injury. That experiment lasted a little more than a week, as Neuvirth re-injured himself on Feb. 18 and has yet to play since.
Since then, Lyon and Petr Mrazek (acquired a week before the deadline), have shared the load for the Flyers. Although neither has been able to fully grab the starter’s position, the duo’s play has been just good enough to keep the Flyers in the playoff mix, as the team has gone 8-6-4 since utilizing the Lyon/Mrazek duo.
Well, thing’s are about to get way more complicated for the Philadelphia coaching staff.
Neuvirth has been practicing with the Flyers in recent days and is expected to be healthy by the end of the week. Whether he plays or not remains to be seen. Elliott is not far behind him, as he’s expected to be back before the end of the regular season. This scenario would leave Philadelphia with four goaltenders on its roster.
In a realistic and perfect world, the Flyers will likely go with Elliott to start the playoffs, assuming he’s healthy. It’s clear, that when healthy, Elliott has the trust of the coach and is viewed as the team’s number one. Based on all four goaltenders’ performances this season, it is probably the right choice for the Flyers.
The more intriguing part to this scenario is to whom the Flyers will elect to use as the back-up. Per Bob Rotruck (the play-by-play commentator for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms), General Manager Ron Hextall said earlier this week that Lyon will “probably stay with the Flyers even after Michal Neuvirth returns.” Lyon has impressed many during his six weeks or so with the Flyers (4-2-1, .905 save percentage, 2.75 GAA), and seems to have done enough to stay in the goaltending mix.
As for Mrazek, the writing seems to be on the wall for the new comer. Mrazek has been incredibly inconsistent since joining the Flyers (5-5-3, .885 save percentage, 3.24 GAA), and has failed to take the opportunity as the starter that was handed to him on a silver platter when arriving in Philadelphia. Although many things can change (even with just five games left in the regular season), it doesn’t seem likely that Mrazek will be in the picture once all goaltenders are healthy. Mrazek’s future as a whole with Philadelphia beyond this season seems foggy. With WHL standout Carter Hart turning pro next year, along with Neuvirth and Elliott being under contract, it doesn’t seem likely that Mrazek will be returning to the Flyers for 2018-19.
Had it not been for his inability to stay healthy, Neuvirth would have never had his job in question. Of all the goaltenders, Neuvirth has the best numbers, sporting an 8-7-3 record, with a .915 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA. But despite having solid numbers, Neuvirth is the definition of inconsistent, both health and play wise. He has been on injured reserve more than once in each of his three seasons with the Flyers, which has often derailed his momentum. His latest injury is the only reason as to why this topic is even being discussed, as it resulted in the acquisition of Mrazek and opened the door for Lyon to get consistent playing time.
Anyway you shake it, the Flyers goaltending situation will be an underlying storyline for (at least) the balance of the regular season. With three goaltenders currently at practice, and another one’s return on the horizon, the battle in the crease will be one to keep track of heading into the playoffs.
But although repetitive and frustrating, what would a Flyers’ season be without controversy between the pipes?