It’s hard to believe, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in five weeks. The Flyers, who have 18 regular season games remaining, went into Sunday’s games trailing the Penguins by three points for the final wild card spot.
They host the Lightning on Monday, which starts a grueling seven-game stretch against teams currently in a playoff position that could also define their postseason viability. If they survive and earn a playoff berth, first-year coach Dave Hakstol might be asking himself a very important question next month.
Who is his No. 1 goalie?
Steve Mason has been the answer since winning the job before the start of the 2013-2014 season. However, backup Michal Neuvirth is making a case for that title after getting the call in five straight games until Mason returned between the pipes in Saturday’s 6-0 laugher against the Blue Jackets.
It was the longest stretch of games Mason had gone since joining the Flyers without playing when healthy, and the two have basically split starts in the last 20 games.
“Yeah, it’s not easy sitting out and we haven’t had a whole lot of practice time so that in itself is a challenge to try and stay sharp,” said Mason, who made 19 saves. “(Saturday night) was a pretty quiet game overall and it took a lot of getting into the rhythm of things.”
Hakstol has shown a propensity of rewarding players who play well with extra ice time, and goalies are no exception. Neuvirth simply took advantage of his opportunity with stellar play when he relieved Mason after Mason left a game on Feb. 20 against the Maple Leafs with leg cramps.
This season, Neuvirth is 16-8-4 with a 2.29 goals against average and .925 save percentage (which is ranked tied for fifth in the league), while Mason, who recovered from a rocky start, owns a 14-15-7 mark, 2.62 GAA and .916 save percentage.
“[Mason] has gone out, worked hard and been a great teammate as he and [Neuvirth] have been all year,” Hakstol said on Saturday. “It was a little extended over a five or six-game period without a start [for Mason], but those two guys have pushed each other and supported each other all year regardless of the circumstances. Mase worked hard while he didn’t get a start and it showed tonight.”
Mason, who nearly outplayed Henrik Lundqvist in a seven-game first-round series against the Rangers in 2014, will no doubt get his opportunity to shine but when he does he must impress.
Should he do so, and should the team sneak into the playoffs, Hakstol will likely be asking himself that very important question.