In Flyers-Rangers, goalies a wash

Posted: April 15, 2014

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago this spring, Ron Hextall woke up before a Game 7 in Pittsburgh and told his coaches - including Paul Holmgren, his head coach - that this is how it would go:

Hextall had suffered a first-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during Game 6 of the series at the Spectrum. For Game 7, he would walk to the morning skate from the Flyers' hotel, a Hyatt. He would walk across the street and then up the hill to the Civic Arena, and if his knee felt OK, he would start in goal. If not, he wouldn't.

As it turned out, it was a hill too far and Hextall decided he couldn't play. Backup Ken Wregget, smoking cigarettes in the hallway outside the dressing room to try to calm himself down, started the deciding game and won, 4-1.

A quarter-century later, the Hyatt is a Marriott, the Civic Arena is a parking lot, Holmgren is the general manager and Hextall is his assistant, but the lesson remains the same - that is, in hockey especially, you never know.

So, Flyers vs. Rangers. Steve Mason vs. Henrik Lundqvist. Every series matchup prognostication graphic will put the big check mark next to Lundqvist's name, and that is fair enough, for the reason of experience if nothing else.

But the current reality is a little bit more complicated than that. Mason was the Flyers' most valuable player through Christmas, as they struggled to find themselves as a team in front of him and simultaneously began to raise themselves from the subterranean depths, a mouthful of dirt at a time. They would not have done it without the way he played in those early, desolate weeks. There was a ton of pressure on Mason to cover for the mistakes in front of him, and the Flyers would not be in the playoffs if he had not.

Mason's numbers dipped after that but then rebounded. He was still very good overall. He has stabilized a goaltending situation that was anything but stable last season - and Ray Emery has proved to be a credible backup.

Mason also is day-to-day with an unspecified upper-body injury suffered when he was run over in Saturday's win at Pittsburgh - which is the you-never-know part. The Penguins' Jayson Megna barreled into the crease and hit Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who hit Mason, who violently crashed to the ice. Mason played the final 3 1/2 minutes of the second period and then was pulled from the game.

Flyers coach Craig Berube said on Saturday that he expects Mason will be ready to play in Thursday's Game 1 of the playoffs against the New York Rangers, and he repeated it yesterday. Berube said, "I think he's fine. He's doing better. That's all I know - he's doing better."

It has been said before that truth is the first casualty of war - but the same thing applies to the injury reports delivered during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Whatever ails Mason - head, shoulder, knee or toe - we are not likely to find out until the day after the Flyers are eliminated from the playoffs, whenever that is.

The assumption, though, is that Mason will be ready on Thursday. (We saw him for a minute yesterday, when he wore a business suit and walked out on a carpet to receive the annual Gene Hart Memorial Award from the Flyers Fan Club. Mason smiled for the cameras and then walked back into the tunnel. With that, diagnose away.)

So, Mason against Lundqvist. The more experienced playoff guy is Lundqvist, by a lot. He has played in 12 playoff series, won five of them, and generally played at a higher level in the postseason than the regular season. Mason has been to the playoffs only once, as a rookie in Columbus 5 years ago. The Blue Jackets were swept in that series by Detroit and never had the lead in any game.

For this season, there really isn't a blink between the guys when it comes to save percentage (.920 for Lundqvist, .917 for Mason). If both play to their numbers, the difference between Lundqvist and Mason is less than one goal in a seven-game series. If you go with their numbers since the end of the Olympic break, there is more of a difference - .915 for Mason, .926 for Lundqvist. Still, that is only about two goals in a seven-game series.

The way these things usually play out, the "when" seems to matter almost as much as the "how many." One stellar game can be worth more than two very good games sometimes. Ten great minutes toward the end of a shootout of a game can be decisive, despite some earlier slapstick. We have seen every variation of this over the years, and trying to predict is pretty much a waste of time.

With that, expect Lundqvist to be good. But you can expect the same from Mason, too. In 63 games this season, Lundqvist allowed two goals or fewer in 35 of them. In 61 games, Mason allowed two or fewer in 33 of them. It really is a blink this year. Assuming he is healthy, it is fair to expect Mason to play up to his numbers in the playoffs.

Which means that we should expect this series to be be decided by somebody else - or, more likely, by a lot of somebodies.


On Twitter: @theidlerich


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