Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mason starts building towards future with memorable debut

Though the end result was a second-period power-play goal from Jakub Voracek that proved to be the deciding tally in a nerve-wracking 2-1 victory which drew the Philadelphia Flyers even with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the reality was that Steve Mason made a mark in his franchise debut as a starter.

You didn't even need an ALL CAPS headline with a clever turn of phrase to tell you that, either. 

Mason, sidelined for most of the last two weeks with an upper-body injury that seemed suspiciously like a concussion, stopped 37-of-38 shots to rightfully earn First Star honors on Friday night, the Orange and Black's first home-ice playoff win against the Blueshirts since May of 1997. Think about how much tougher his task would have been if New York had found the net on any of their 14 blocked shots or 20 outright misses.

“Yeah, I think so. Just to be able to get into the game right off the bat," Mason said of having to handle 16 first-period shots. "I hadn’t played in almost two weeks so it was good to feel the puck right away, make some saves, gain a little bit of confidence and carry that forward through the rest of the game.” 

He returned from a whiplash injury suffered on April 12 at Pittsburgh, earned his first career playoff victory and joined some rare company in his initial postseason start here. They're not household names, but notable nonetheless: Ken Wregget and John Vanbiesbrouck.

Wregget made his Flyers debut under extreme duress 25 years ago. More than a month after his acquisition, and having played in just three games since then, the former Maple Leaf was pressed into duty for a deciding Game 7 in Pittsburgh no less, after starter Ron Hextall suffered a debilitating groin injury. All Wregget did was stone Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey and a host of others, stopping 39-of-40 shots in a 4-1 victory which sent Paul Holmgren's club into the Wales Conference Finals, on April 29, 1989.

Ten years later, in the twilight of his career, Vanbiesbrouck wrested the starting job away from the faded Hextall and delivered as if he were manning the Rangers' net more than a decade before. He opened up the first round by shutting down the Maple Leafs -- then the highest-scoring team in the NHL -- in front of a hostile Toronto crowd with a 25-save shutout, still the only Philadelphia netminder to ever record a clean sheet in his debut for the club.That was April 22, 1999.

The 25-year-old Mason held the visitors off the scoreboard for the final 55:22 of the contest, after letting a Dominic Moore stuffer elude his right pad less than five minutes into the contest. Backed by defensemen who had trouble containing New York's attackers in the offensive zone and fronted by forwards which had trouble creating space, clearing the puck and possessing it on the rush through the neutral zone and beyond, Mason took the burden of pulling his club back from the brink.

In being the primary mover that dug his team out of a potentially fatal series disadvantage, Mason channeled Bernie Parent, Pelle Lindbergh and Hextall -- the top three in the goaltending pantheon -- but also might have created an undue burden in expectations going forward after just one night.

“It’s impressive,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “He hasn’t played in a while. I know he can hear me now, so I’m not going to be too nice to him. But, he battles and some of the saves he made tonight, especially with that stick there, is pretty awesome.”

It was a long wait of 1,828 days since Mason last started in the playoffs. That was Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on April 23, 2009 in Columbus, as the Detroit Red Wings poured it on and outscored the Blue Jackets, 6-5, to sweep the series. The length of time in between apparently didn't faze Mason, who said as much in the postgame, while also putting Moore's early tally and 7:15 of scoreless hockey in Tuesday's Game 3 behind him as well.

“It was a lot of fun to get back out there in this atmosphere at the Wells Fargo Center," Mason added. "It’s second to none in my opinion. Watching it on TV prior to getting to this organization and now that I actually get to play in front of that kind of crowd, it’s hard to describe. It’s a lot of fun.”

Ray Emery held down the fort as well as he could, going 1-2 with a 3.49 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage through the first three games as the Rangers tested his surgically-repaired hips and capitalized on undisciplined play by their opponents. Mason's career playoff save percentage stood at .880 even after his 3-for-3 effort in relief at the end of a 4-1 loss in Game 3, but is trending upwards that legitimizing 90th-percentile.

Now, the real test is ahead, 24 hours out, in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden where the fulcrum of the series rests.   

“I think if we’re able to go in there and have the kind of compete that the guys have shown time in and time out this season, I think it’s going to bode well for us. It’s not an easy place to go and play, but I think the guys are well prepared to going there with our best effort. I think if we have that, we’ll be ok."

His teammates might not have gotten there in such a great spot had it not been for Mason's highlight-reel save on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh late in the second period.

McDonagh, known for slick rushes when the timing's right, cut in through the slot and appeared to have the whole right half of the net to himself. Not so, as Mason dove forward and thrust his stick at the puck to shuttle it aside. The Flyers kept their slim 2-1 edge because of it, then maintained the lead by killing off a 3-on-4 to start the third.

“It was kind of a tough play. I was trying to be patient and he was coming up slow. I bid early, he made a move to the middle and I was just able to reach back and get it with the paddle of the stick. It was a big save.”

Sidebar: While the club has a notorious recent history regarding the playoff starter selection process, the Flyers managed to make another bit of history with their dueling goaltenders on Friday night.

Since Ray Emery, who never participated in the postseason due to injury here in his first stint with the club in 2009-10 also made his Philadelphia playoff debut in Game 1, this year marks the first since the 1980 playoffs where two goaltenders participated in their first playoff game for the club during one series.

Rookie Pete Peeters bowed against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the preliminary round on Apr. 8, 1980, stopping 14-of-17 shots as his teammates bailed him out with a 4-3 victory at the Spectrum. Phil Myre was slotted in net for the first time three days later, in a series-clinching 3-2 overtime victory in Game 3 at Northlands Coliseum, where he halted 41-of-43 pucks.
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