The Philadelphia Flyers are on a tear right now, going 12-2-1 in their last 15 games with decisive victories over some of the top teams in the league. While it has been a true team effort, one would be remiss not to mention Steve Mason's incredible play in goal.
Mason has been an absolute stalwart between the pipes for Philadelphia this season and is currently sporting a 30-16-6 record, reaching 30 wins for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
During a brutal start to the season where the Flyers couldn't score goals or win games, Mason kept them afloat and helped push the team back on the right track. He had an impressive .936 save percentage in October and November.
While his save percentage has been more pedestrian since then, that could speak somewhat to the Flyers finding their offense and playing more of a free-flowing game than they did at the start of the year.
Over the past couple of weeks, Mason has elevated his game to a whole new level. Since the start of February, he has gone 10-2-1 while starting all but two of the Flyers' contests.
Mason has been particularly hot in March during the Flyers' recent winning streak. He shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 15 and then came back out the next day and held them to just three goals en route to a weekend sweep.
Mason has looked athletic and confident in net. He moves effortlessly for a 6'4" netminder and has been sharp on rebounds and quick with his glove.
That athleticism and quickness have helped him to the 11th-best goals-against average and save percentage in the league among goalies with at least 50 games played.
Of course, this all does not happen in a vacuum and one has to be even more impressed by Mason's season given his underwhelming past.
While he's still just 25 years old, Mason has already had a tumultuous career to this point.
After winning the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie in the 2008-09 season, Mason was considered one of the premier young talents in the game and the future of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Then things seemed to sour for Mason, as his numbers dropped dramatically the following year and he underwent a four-year dip down the ranks.
There's a case to be made that Mason was the worst goalie in the entire league from 2009 through 2012, and his problems were far-ranging.
With his career seemingly heading into the sewers for good, Columbus decided to ship out its former savior for a career backup (Michael Leighton) and a third-round pick.
Philadelphia was on the other side of that trade, and there was a lot of murmuring around the city about the deal. The Flyers were in a tailspin largely initiated by Ilya Bryzgalov's woes and the team's decades-long search for a goaltender was well-known.
Nobody was exactly thrilled that the Flyers were now trading for Sergei Bobrovsky's backup who had a sub-.900 save percentage over the previous four years.
We knew he had talent, but the reports from Columbus were extremely concerning. This first one from Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch had some concerning tidbits (emphasis mine):
“The worst thing that ever happened to Mason was that first year,” said an NHL goaltending coach. “He stopped listening to his coaches. He stopped listening to anybody. He felt like he had arrived.“What could (the Blue Jackets) do (in 2008-09), not play him? He caught fire and they caught fire, and the franchise had never done something like that before. But he was given the keys to the kingdom. He was given a big contract and he wasn’t mature enough to handle it. Still isn’t.”
This is not exactly what you want out of a player at any position, but especially not one as equally flaky and important as goaltender.
However, it didn't stop there, as there were questions coming from the locker room and coaches about his tenacity and mental strength as well (emphasis mine):
Behind the scenes with the Blue Jackets, many say Mason is a decent teammate, but can be petulant and moody. Coaches – those here, and those long gone – have said he cuts corners during practice and workouts unless kept under a watchful eye. And then there’s the issue of maturity.
In hockey or any other sport, that is simply not the kind of player you want to have on your team, and it's a player who isn't going to improve as they get older. Mason's insane regression on the stat sheet reflected his apparent work ethic and maturity.
SB Nation's The Cannon had a really interesting feature on Mason and a couple of his struggling teammates as well, as the writer went back year by year and analyzed what happened that made Mason's game worsen so fast.
It had some of the same themes from Portzline's article, but also focused a bit more on the terrible team around Mason, which seems a bit more relevant now looking back (emphasis mine):
As the season quickly derailed around Thanksgiving, the team could never recover. Mason just wasn't the same player, though it could be debated how much was Mason and how much was the decreased play of the team in front of him. Injuries to Jan Hejda andRostislav Klesla hurt the defense, but overall Mason's numbers plummeted. He finished his sophomore season with a 3.05 gaa and a 90.5% save percentage.
When you look through this article further, some other modestly promising statements jump out (emphasis mine):
So, what this says is that Steve Mason played in 54 games, and in 12 of them he was really, really bad. That also means that in the other 42 games, he was actually really, really good: a 2.32 GAA, and a .922 SV%. So, basically, 78% of the time this past season, Mason was as good or better than his rookie season.
Now, it's hard to say exactly what has happened in the past 12 months that leaves Mason as a top-15 goaltender in the league on a playoff-bound Philadelphia team.
Some of it just has to do with maturity. Maybe things seemed worse in Columbus and the media and fans were too harsh on their goalie because the team was losing, but clearly Mason had some growing up to do.
At 25 years old with a humbling few years behind him, Mason is clearly a hard worker and team player. He's been nothing but modest, responsible and scrappy since arriving in Philadelphia.
Another big part of it likely has to do with getting out of Columbus. Let's face it, there wasn't much for Mason to work with during his time there.
The team in front of him stunk, injuries ravaged its only decent talent and Columbus isn't exactly a hockey hotbed with a successful organization.
Coming to Philadelphia could have inspired Mason. Getting a fresh start anywhere was obviously what he needed and, for whatever reason, the Flyers organization seems to be a perfect fit.
The turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable, as Mason has been one of the best players on a team that is looking like a legitimate contender.
Mason seems to be getting more and more comfortable as well. He signed a three-year extension this past winter and clearly wants to be part of the Flyers' future.
He has also looked better recently after a bit of a midseason slump. He has an impressive .938 save percentage in March and is riding a four-game winning streak.
There hasn't been much news stemming from Mason's camp since he got to Philly and the media has largely only had positive things to say about him.
He looks comfortable in interviews and his teammates seem to like him. These are all very good signs and point to a successful future.
In any case, this story is far from over. Mason still has a lot of hockey left to play and the Flyers still need to keep winning and make some noise in the playoffs.
For now, though, the narrative is emphatically positive. A team found a player that needed it as much as it needed him, and both are reaping the benefits.
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