Boy, how things have changed in the Flyers' crease since the start of the season.
Opposing teams were scoring at will against Philadelphia to begin the season despite the Flyers possessing a top three offense. All of that changed, though, when Michal Neuvirth hit the shelf with a lower-body injury about three weeks ago.
Steve Mason, who had been struggling to begin the season just like Neuvirth, has stood on his head since the net became his and only his net. This past week alone, Mason went 4-0 with a 1.71 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. His efforts earned him the NHL’s First Star of the Week.
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The difference for Mason has been the comfortability and confidence he has built knowing he is the guy without having to look over his shoulder.
“I don’t think it’s any goaltender’s goal to play in a tandem,” Mason said over a conference call on Monday following his player of the week honor. “Everybody wants to be the No. 1 guy that plays night in and night out. That’s exactly what my goal is here to have moving forward and having the continued strong play will help with that.”
Over his first 10 appearances to begin the season, Mason gave up four or more goals three times and held opponents to two or fewer goals only four times. After his 10th game, his save percentage was well below .900, which has become the standard for any reliable starting goaltender. Since allowing six goals against Toronto, Mason has been a different player.
It’s no coincidence it has coincided with more consistent playing time.
What also has benefitted him is the improvement on the back end with the guys directly in front him. The defensemen have really found a rhythm, something that was painfully missing in the early part of the season.
“I think we had obviously some young guys coming into the lineup and playing big minutes,” Mason said. “There’s going to be growing pains, it’s about being familiar with everybody … when you have that type of confidence in those guys, it makes playing that much easier.”
This effort from Mason, who has only been held out of one game in favor of Lehigh Valley call-up and now backup goalie Anthony Stolarz since Neuvirth’s injury, comes at an even more timely point in his career.
While his play has truly turned the Flyers' season back in the right direction with this five-game winning streak and current wild-card position they find themselves in entering Tuesday’s game with Florida, it also benefits his future bank account.
This is a contract year for Mason, meaning he’ll hit free agency this summer along with Neuvirth. The Flyers, most likely, will bring back one of them.
So far, Mason has the clear advantage.
“I’ve done a pretty good job of blocking it out of my mind. Whatever happens happens,” Mason said. “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.”
As he put it, that focus is on winning games and nothing else. He isn’t lying, apparently.