Mason the difference for Flyers

Posted: April 27, 2014

Injuries have become regional in hockey. You have your uppers and your lowers, and no one wants to zoom in on the exact location for fear the opponent will target that weakness.

Goaltender Steve Mason was a spectator for all but 7 minutes, 15 seconds during the first three games of the Flyers' first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers because of an upper-body injury.

Even though no one would say so, it was pretty safe to assume that something was wrong with Mason's head after he was the helpless victim of a vicious two-player collision between Pittsburgh's Jayson Megna and his own teammate, Andrew MacDonald, in the Flyers' penultimate game of the regular season.

Mason left that game and did not return until the third period of Game 3, when there was nothing he could do about a game the Flyers had already let slip away from them. Still, it was the final sign that he had cleared all the medical hurdles needed to return from his upper-body injury, and that's no easy task these days when a head injury is involved.

Given the way the series went through the first three games, the Flyers needed to do something different to make good on captain Claude Giroux's promise late Tuesday night that his team would head back to Madison Square Garden with the series tied at two games apiece.

Changing starting goaltenders was the best and most obvious idea, especially since Mason was the Flyers' starting goaltender for 61 of the team's 82 games this year. Ray Emery was competent enough in the first three games, but it was pretty clear the Flyers were not going to advance beyond this series, let alone end their long Stanley Cup drought, with him minding the net.

Now, after Mason stole a 2-1 victory for the Flyers in Game 4 Friday night, they have their starter back, and they have a chance at least of winning this series.

"He played a great game and made some big saves," Flyers winger Matt Read said after scoring his first goal of the series. "He got some momentum for us when we were playing on our heels a little bit, and then we started playing a little bit better in front of him. He stood on his head tonight, and it's impressive that he could miss a couple games and it didn't look like he missed a beat."

Without Mason, the game and the series probably would have been over in the first period Friday night. The goaltender could have explained what it feels like to be the target at a shooting gallery after the first 20 minutes. He made his first save 48 seconds into the game on a close-range shot by the Rangers' Mats Zuccarello.

"I hadn't played in almost two weeks, so it was good to feel the puck right away, make some saves, and gain a little bit of confidence," Mason said.

Zuccarello's shot was the first of 16 by the Rangers in the opening period. Mason stopped 15 of them. Without him, the Flyers and their fragile defense could have easily skated into the intermission down by three or four goals.

Instead, the game was tied at 1, and, maybe, the man sidelined for two weeks by that upper-body injury was getting into the heads of the team that was dominating the game on the ice.

"Mason looked very confident right from the get go, and he had to be in the first [period]," Flyers coach Craig Berube said.

The Rangers, for the third time in four games, scored the game's first goal, but that wraparound goal by Domonic Moore 4 minutes, 38 seconds into the game could not be blamed on Mason. It was more an indication of how much the Flyers needed to get better on defense.

"It was just about relaxing," Read said. "You don't want to have too much pressure on your shoulders. If you're intense, but not making the plays, you're not relaxed enough to do the right things. You have to relax and play hockey."

The defense got better, but Mason still saved the Flyers time and time again, finishing the night with 37 saves, which was tied for his fourth-highest total of the season. It was Mason's first career playoff victory in five starts.

The Rangers started the third period with a 4-on-3 power play, and just as it was expiring, Mason made a great save on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. With six minutes left, the goaltender lost his stick and looked as if he was trying to make saves with his fists.

From start to finish, there was no doubt about the man who made the difference on this night. This series is tied only because Steve Mason is back to work.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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