Steve Mason is back, and so are the Philadelphia Flyers.
Despite getting obliterated in shot attempts for the third time in four games in the series, the Flyers found a way Friday night to squeak out a 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers at Wells Fargo Center to even their first-round best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
Mason returned from a nearly two-week absence due to an upper-body injury to put on a goaltending clinic after allowing a somewhat soft goal to start the game. Dominic Moore gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the first period after a gift rebound that led to a wraparound goal, as Mason moved at a glacial pace to get to the short-side post. But after the Rangers' scored on their fifth shot of the contest, Mason made 32 consecutive saves to turn this series into a best-of-three.
One game, kind of uneven season, whatever, but I gotta say, I thought Steve Mason was straight-up incapable of anything like this.— Sean Gentille (@seangentille) April 26, 2014
Steve Mason's first career NHL playoff win … he was the difference … wonderful performance— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 26, 2014
The Rangers, however, felt differently.
Strang (@KatieStrangESPN) April 26, 2014
McDonagh: "We didn't make it tough enough on Mason in his first game back"— Steve Zipay (@stevezipay) April 26, 2014
It's the type of performance the Flyers needed with the Rangers on the persistent attack, but can Mason pull off this feat two more times over the next three games?
In the immortal words of Daniel Alfredsson, probably not.
The Flyers have been outshot 130-107 in this series, including a 38-25 margin in Game 4. For the series, the Rangers have the Corsi (52.9) and Fenwick (55.5) percentage edges in all situations, and their plus-7.3 percent mark in Fenwick score close differential is the fourth-best mark in the postseason. Long story with a lot of math short, the Flyers have won their two games on the strength of a pair of remarkable goaltending performances from Mason in Game 4 and Ray Emery in Game 2.
"He looked confident right from the get-go, and he had to be in the first," head coach Craig Berube told The Associated Press, referring to the 16 shots Mason faced in the first period.
To think the Flyers can win two of their next three games while getting crushed possession-wise is like counting on Stanford to win two of every three of its college football games by virtue of the famous Stanford Band Play.
Mason was fantastic Friday. There's no question about that. His desperation yet skilled save on defenseman Ryan McDonagh late in the second period deserves to be the play of the week on every highlight show. But you're living in a fantasy world if you think that's something that can be counted upon on a regular basis.
There's a reason why Flyers coach Craig Berube decided to stick with Emery in Game 3 when Mason was healthy enough to play. If the Boston Bruins were dealing with an injured Tuukka Rask and backup Chad Johnson was great in the first two games of a playoff series, do you really think coach Claude Julien wouldn't immediately go back to Rask the instant he was healthy enough to dress? Of course he would, because that's what happens with true No. 1 goaltenders.
Mason is a No. 1 by circumstance, and if Emery delivered in Game 3, Mason would've been watching from the bench yet again Friday night.
Instead, Mason made the most of his opportunity and had one of his rare brilliant games that tricks general managers into believing the former first-round pick is capable of performances like this on a consistent basis. Every goaltender worth his salt will find a 37-save showing at some point during a season, but that doesn't mean you sign that goaltender to a three-year contract extension.
For his career, Mason has a .907 save percentage in 300 career games. That's who he is, even with a two-month run of dominance to start this season that earned him that extension from general manager Paul Holmgren. Mason had a .909 save percentage over the final four months of the regular season, which speaks more to the goaltender he really is, despite what he showed Friday.
The one thing the Flyers have going for them is this is a three-game series. Even with two of the games at Madison Square Garden, all the Flyers need is two—TWO!—great games from Mason, and they can pull the first-round upset. For all the predictive accuracy Corsi and Fenwick can have over an 82-game season, all the Rangers' dominance in shot attempts in this series can be nullified in a small sample size by an elite goaltender.
Is Mason that elite goaltender? His body of work says he's not and he needs his teammates to play better in front of him the rest of the way. But if the Rangers continue to control the game at even strength, it will be up to Mason to be the difference for the Flyers.
If Mason can steal two more games, he will finally validate himself as the No. 1 goaltender his supporters believe him to be.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
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