NEW YORK — Trailing 2-0 less than nine minutes into Game 2, the fans at Madison Square Garden serenaded Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery with a mocking chant filled with enough smugness to clog the air in a Brooklyn co-op organic food market.
"We want Hextall!"
"We want Hextall!"
Feeling pretty good about themselves, New York Rangers fans called for retired goaltender and current Flyers assistant general manager and director of hockey operations Ron Hextall to replace the embattled Emery. Hextall was watching from the press box high above the ice as the Rangers scored two goals on their first four shots, but his presence in net was not required.
Emery responded by stopping the final 29 shots he faced, allowing the Flyers to rally for a 4-2 victory in Game 2 of this first-round best-of-seven series that is now even at one game apiece.
Did Emery hear the chants when his team was in a two-goal hole?
"Yeah, a little bit," Emery said with a smile. "I'm focused on what I'm doing."
"Oh yeah, I heard it," said Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, whose tireless effort on an empty-net goal with 25.4 seconds remaining in the third period sealed the victory. "It is what it is. You can't care what the fans are going to say. We just put our heads down and went to work."
Emery's performance on Sunday afternoon was just his latest comeback in a career that could have been over long ago.
It was in December 2009 during his first stint with the Flyers when Emery was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a career-threatening disease that results in tissue dying and the bone collapsing. Surgery requiring a bone graft to improve blood flow and save his hip forced him out of hockey until March 2011, when he joined the Anaheim Ducks.
Emery signed with the Chicago Blackhawks for the next two seasons and won the Stanley Cup as a backup in 2013. He returned to Philadelphia this summer to back up Steve Mason, who has yet to appear in this series because of an undisclosed upper-body injury.
The perseverance shown by Emery on Sunday is nothing new to Flyers coach Craig Berube, who was an assistant coach during Emery's first go-round with the organization.
"He's a battler; always has been," Berube said. "I've known Ray for a while. We had him here before and he stays with it. He's very good at that. He's a true pro."
The question staring at Berube for Game 3 in Philadelphia on Tuesday is: Even if Mason is recovered enough to start, has Emery done enough to maintain the net?
Consider that of the six goals Emery has allowed against the Rangers, four of them probably would not have been stopped by even the best of goalies.
Brad Richards and Derek Stepan scored in Game 1 off a lucky ricochet and cross-ice pass, respectively, that left Emery with no chance to push across and make a save. In Game 2, Martin St. Louis and Benoit Pouliot scored off similar passes through the middle of the ice that gave Emery no hope of making the save.
On Pouliot's goal that made it 2-0, Emery caught an unlucky break, as the flubbed one-time attempt floated over his head when he was otherwise in a decent position to stop it.
If Mason starts Game 3, it will have been 10 days since he last played. After a blistering start to the season, he has a .909 save percentage since Dec. 4. Sure, he went 5-2-1 with a .933 save percentage in his final nine starts this season, but he's never won a postseason game, and Emery has been to the Stanley Cup Final twice.
If it's not broken, why fix it?
"We'll look at that when it comes about," Berube said. "Right now, we're at where we're at. I'm not really thinking that far ahead."
The Flyers solved their issues with the seam pass over the final two periods, and Emery appeared to adjust as well. He moved deftly to his right to shut the door on a chance for Derek Stepan late in the second period with the Flyers ahead 3-2, then moved well to stifle a chance for Mats Zuccarello in the third period to preserve the one-goal lead.
"He's obviously ready for it," Berube said. "We all study film and watch them and know what they're going to do. He's no different. He can anticipate a little bit and get over there."
Emery also got the job done with the undisciplined Flyers short-handed six times, denying eight of nine shots with the Rangers on a power play.
The Rangers dominated the possession battle for a second game in a row, posting a 65-41 edge in Corsi. If the Flyers can solidify just a little bit more defensively (they blocked 22 shots in Game 2) and get away from their penchant for taking minor penalties in Game 3, Emery probably gives them a better chance to win than Mason.
"He was huge tonight once again," said Flyers center Sean Couturier, who led the team's forwards in ice time with 20:27 and delivered a splendid defensive effort. "Last game, he played a big game. He was one of our best players. Today, again he was one of our best players. He's a big part of the PK too, the success. He made some big saves at the right moment and kept us in the game all game."
Emery also gave the Flyers their first win at Madison Square Garden since February 2011, breaking an 0-9 stretch on the road against the Rangers.
If the Flyers want to win this series, they should go back to Emery for Game 3.
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