The Philadelphia Flyers have clinched a berth in the NHL playoffs this year after missing out on the postseason last spring. The biggest question facing the team as it enters the playoffs is whether or not it can count on starting goalie Steve Mason.
Mason has been a big part of the Flyers' success this season. As of April 9, Mason has appeared in 60 games for the Flyers and has a 2.51 GAA and a .917 save percentage.
While those are slightly above-average numbers for an NHL goalie, the most important numbers are Mason's win/loss record. The Oakville, Ontario native is 33-18-7 so far this season.
That means he has made the big save for the Orange and Black when he needed to more often than not. The Flyers are not considered one of the stronger defensive teams in the league, and yet Mason has played well enough to make the Flyers consistent winners.
But while Mason has been fairly reliable during the regular season, the playoffs are another matter altogether. Most teams that go on long playoff runs rely on their netminder to steal a few games for them along the way, including some games they probably don't deserve to win.
Mason has only appeared in four playoff games in his NHL career. In 2008-09, his rookie season, Mason led the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first playoff appearance in franchise history. Unfortunately, the stay was a brief one. The Detroit Red Wings swept Columbus in four straight games.
Mason's numbers were anything but impressive. He was 0-4 with a 4.26 GAA and an .878 save percentage. Worse yet, only one of the four games was close, and that was a 6-5 loss, a game in which Mason was hardly at his best.
Despite his lack of playoff success so far, Mason is excited about the prospect of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs. He recently told CSNPhilly.com's Tim Panaccio, "This is what we play hockey for. Situations where you are playing meaningful games this time of year. To be in the position we are after the start we had to the season says a lot about this time. It’s definitely exciting."
Mason feels it is important to keep himself in the same routine that has worked for him during the regular season even as the games become more intense and the playoffs get under way. "Everything’s status quo," Mason told Dave Issac of the South Jersey Courier-Post. "Just because games are becoming more meaningful and there’s less and less games coming up on the schedule, you don’t change anything."
The Flyers remain hopeful that things will be different for Mason in this year's playoffs than they were five years ago. For one thing, the 25-year-old has a lot more experience now than he did as a rookie. For another, his career was revitalized when he was traded to the Flyers.
"You have a new sense of excitement about being in a new organization, working with a new coach, new players on your team," Mason explained to Adam Kimelman of NHL.com. "As soon as the trade went through I had a thousand pounds lifted off my back and my brain. It's hard to explain the sense of relief."
Jakub Voracek, who has played with Mason in both Columbus and Philadelphia, also noticed the difference right away. Voracek told Kimelman, "Right away when he got traded you could see the fire in his eyes. When I saw him the first time [with the Flyers], it was like he got released from prison. He was excited to play hockey."
Mason also has worked well with Flyers' goaltending coach Jeff Reese, who moved the big goalie back further in his crease and helped revive his sagging confidence.
Reese believes in Mason right now. He told Kimelman, "This guy always had the talent, he always had skill, he can move well for a big guy, very athletic, handles the puck, has a great glove hand...That's the biggest difference, him getting out of there and getting to a new place where people believed in him again."
The question remains, will Mason be able to play well enough to help the Flyers win a round or two in the playoffs this year? The potential is clearly there, and there are reasons to expect he'll play much better this year than he did in 2009. Now he just has to go out and do it.