Flyers winning the goaltending battle

Posted: May 01, 2014

TWO PICTURES from a beat-down.

First:

The clock says there is 6:23 left in the second period.

The Flyers are holding a 2-0 lead. They are killing a phantom penalty, a high stick on Erik Gustafsson. The crowd at the Wells Fargo Center is in high dudgeon, which is different than the normal dudgeon in that it is even more profane.

Booing, howling - and here come the Rangers, two-on-one. Benoit Pouliot has the puck on his stick and a clear, clean shot. He fires from 23 feet, according to the score sheet. It is a prime scoring chance, the best of the night.

And then Steve Mason flashes his gloved right hand. And the noise in the building changes.

Then, later:

The clock says there is 4:41 left in the second period. The score is now 4-0. Wayne Simmonds has just completed a hat trick. The Flyers' stated goal, after spending much of the series against the Rangers toiling ineffectively on the perimeter, was to get closer to New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and to work both harder and more effectively in those close quarters. This is what they do, and Simmonds is the personification of that promise.

Lundqvist gets to his feet and stays in a stoic crouch after the goal is scored. Hats rain from the same stands that earlier had rained so much invective. More than 600 hats are sacrificed to the gods of tradition, and a small scattering of them litters the ice in front of the goaltender.

Whether Lundqvist stares at them, or directly at his skates, is hard to tell.

And so we go to Game 7, with pretty much every one of our preconceptions shattered - but mostly this one: With one game remaining in the series, one game tonight, the Flyers can rightly claim that they have had the better goaltending in the series so far.

It was not supposed to be this way. King Henrik was thought to have the advantage because of his experience and his overall pedigree. The Flyers began the series with backup Ray Emery for the first three games and then Mason for the next three, after recovering from whatever the hell his upper-body injury was - and, well, the overriding thought was that if they were going to prevail in the series, it was going to have to be in other areas.

Except, here we are. Emery was the better goaltender in Game 2. Mason was the better goaltender in Game 4. Overall, Lundqvist was fine but underworked and inadequately tested by the Flyers in the first five games.

And then came Game 6 - when Mason absolutely saved the Flyers in the first period when they could not seem to control the puck in their end, and when Lundqvist was severely tested and buckled.

It ended with a 5-2 score, and with Lundqvist wisely sitting on the bench for the third period, preserving his strength for the quick turnaround. The most dominant game of the series went against the Rangers. And with 56.5 seconds left, after an elongated stoppage following the second Rangers goal and then a scrum, the crowd began to chant his name - "Ma-son, Ma-son, Ma-son" - at which point, the goaltender raised his stick, briefly and slightly, in acknowledgement.

"Those are moments that send chills down your spine," Mason said.

It is hard to overstate how good Mason was at the start of the game. The Flyers held a 1-0 lead but they treated the puck like a grenade in their end. Good players like Sean Couturier couldn't control it. Nobody could seem to hang on, be it from pressure or nerves or whatever. The Flyers had nine giveaways in the first period, and many of them resulted in good chances - but Mason stopped them all.

"They came in waves," Simmonds said, later. "And he made some huge saves for us. He allowed us to get our footing under us."

Everything built from that first period. And when Gustafsson came out of the penalty box following Mason's big glove save on Pouliot and scored the breakaway goal to make it 3-0, the rout was on.

And now, one way or another, it ends tonight at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers can go home knowing that momentum in this series has been a phantom, while the Flyers can rightly claim that their best is, indeed, good enough to beat a team that has routinely frustrated them in the last few years.

The Flyers can also claim this: That if they don't have the better goalie, career-wise, they have the hotter goalie, here-and-now-wise. That this is something worth having is one of the only obvious things about this series.


Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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