PHILADELPHIA - Seven minutes into the Flyers looking again like a team that had lost four straight, Sean Couturier gave away a point blank chance to Justin Abdelkader in the slot. But Steve Mason got a right pad out that was like a rope down a well.
Scott Hartnell next made a deft redirection of a Kimmo Timonen point drive and after waiting for too much of the first period to fall behind again, the Flyers suddenly didn’t find hockey so hard after all.
“Anytime you have a lead it calms everybody down,” said Mason. The Flyers started to skate, taking the game to the injury-ravaged Red Wings, the lone oasis during a killer six-game portion of the schedule that threatens to leave Craig Berube’s team skating in standings sand coming out of the Olympic break.
Thanks to a 1-7 start and the 2-5-2 skid the Flyers dragged into Tuesday night’s 5-0 win, they will have to take their chase to the wire. And the more you watch them the more you understand they are running across a tight rope with only a man in the nets below.
Mason caught them Tuesday night, doing a remarkable snow angel in the second period to stop Luke Glendening from point blank range, then flashing his glove on Glendening again in the third after Vinny Lecavalier had all night to get the puck out and didn’t.
After 10 days of atrophy, the Flyers’ feet were moving again, like they did during the two-month run that got them back into the hunt, when they largely were taking their chances trading chances. With a change of system, the play in their own end improved to a workable point, and it got them going, sure. But only when Paul Holmgren finds the Flyers a first-pair defenseman will defense become a strength of this team.
So may the best goalie win, never mind how many penalties the Flyers take – six more on Thursday night - as they continue to never mind how often Craig Berube tells them to cut it out.
If they make the playoffs it will be with a confidence, bordering on arrogance, that has brought them springing out of the penalty box for nine wins from third period deficits. At its best, this club believes it can outscore teams in the end.
As shown two years ago, when the Flyers outgunned the Penguins and then couldn’t get the puck back against the more organized Devils, you can’t go deep into the playoffs that way, but maybe you can make them, provided you have the goaltending. Thursday night the Flyers did, as was the case during their November-December surge, when Mason more often than not was bailing them out.
How much has his play slipped? Not as much as he suggested in self-flagellating interviews he gave early in the week.
Asked Thursday night what specifically he has been working on, Mason said, “I don’t want to keep dwelling on it,” Apparently he spent three years of his life doing that in Columbus before getting his fresh start here. What he has learned, or not really learned about himself, has made the recent three-year, $12.3 million contract extension either a bargain or just more cap room squandered.
“Absolutely, I know exactly when I am playing well and when I’m not, know when things aren’t going well, know what I am not comfortable with,” he said. “But it’s not always a quick fix.”
Neither has been the Flyers lack of presence in their own end, where they have spent too much time recently being pinned, awaiting their next penalty or goal against.
“There are some things to work on,” said Mason, trying to be a leader, referring to the things that forced him to fully earn his second shutout of the season. Up 3-0 going to the third, the Flyers, back to the cockiness at both blue lines that started to get them in trouble during January, were not content to use the score and the clock and lock things down the way mature teams do. Mason had to be an acrobat and was to the end, making a final minute glove save on Patrick Eaves.
The fans not accustomed to seeing this level of athleticism in a Flyer goal for oh, at least two decades, loved Mason’s second shutout of the season, a hugely-needed win that the goalie called “a small step in the bigger picture.”
We will paint it again for you. The next three games are in Anaheim, Los Angles and San Jose, teams with 27, 16 and eight more points than the Flyers, many of those gained against much tougher Western Conference schedule. While 16 of the Flyers remaining 27 contests are at home, six of them are against Boston, Chicago, St Louis, San Jose, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Road and home, the Flyers have 15 games left against the top nine teams in today’s overall standings.
So just taking care of business against the eight teams with which they are within six points isn’t going to get them to the post-season. The Flyers are going to have to show they can play with the best clubs, which by January 29, it has become clear means beating them 4-3, not 2-1.
All these analyses of the Mason signing that warned of his drop in save percentage miss the point that he doesn’t play for a save percentage kind of team. Ilya Bryzgalov had a good one in Phoenix, remember. So trust your eyes, not the numbers, down the stretch as Steve Mason either proves he can carry a team or does not.
To contact Jay Greenberg, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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