Steve Mason would probably admit to a sense of relief that a sub-par start to his season has made a 180-degree turn. The Flyers goalie would also have no problem giving much of the credit for that reversal to his teammates after being named Monday as the NHL’s first star for last week.
“It’s a great honor,” Mason said in a conference call. “There’s so many great players throughout the league that can have big weeks from time to time, so I think as a whole the team’s on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that with the strong play in front of me.”
Mason and the Flyers deserve mutual credit for tightening up their play in the neutral zone and their defensive zone. Of course, it took a while.
When there have been breakdowns in recent games, Mason has been there. That’s clearly been evidenced by their roll of five straight victories and Mason’s string of four wins last week, complete with a 1.71 goals-against average and .945 saves percentage.
“I think the team as a whole, just playing a little bit tighter in our defensive zone as of late, and just making the goaltenders’ reads that much more simple,” Mason said in explaining his turnaround. “Right now I think there’s a real comfort level with the guys in front of me, just because of the amount of hockey we’ve played lately. Now we’re looking forward to keeping it moving. Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making up ground in the standings.”
It’s not that the Flyers had such an awful start to the season, because they had been hanging around the .500 mark almost from Day 1. Considering their starts of the past several seasons, that’s almost good.
It was also largely because they were scoring in bunches. They were also giving up goals at a higher clip than any of the other 29 teams. But their struggles to straighten out have suddenly smoothed to a 14-10-3 record heading into a home game Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers.
Their 31 points was temporarily good enough to put the Flyers into a playoff position, but by virtue of a schedule quirk they’ve also played two, three or even four more games than their closest competitors in the Eastern Conference.
For Mason, however, the extra helping of games around Thanksgiving and into December has been helpful.
“Those games when you’re not getting a lot of shots a lot of times, the shot you do get could be a good, high-grade scoring chance,” Mason said. “When you’re sitting around for a few minutes not seeing the puck and all of a sudden you have a chance like that it’s more difficult to play. Games where you’re constantly getting the workload, you’re not thinking, you’re just playing. So for myself personally, those are the games I enjoy the most, where I’m seeing a lot of pucks.”
This Mason resurgence has come at a good time, as fellow Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth has been out with a knee sprain. He was expected to skate Monday, however, and could optimistically be back in about 10 days. But Mason has already taken steps to again lock down the No. 1 job which has been his the last couple of seasons.
“I don’t think it’s any goaltender’s goal to play in a tandem,” Mason said. “Everyone wants to be a No. 1 guy that plays night in and night out and that’s exactly what my goal is here. I think having the continued strong play will help with that.”
Mason’s recent roll has boosted his once dismal saves percentage to an almost respectable level. Overall this season he’s gone 9-8-3 with a 2.76 goals-against average and .904 saves percentage in 21 games (18 starts). Getting over the .900 barrier meant something to him.
“I was aware of it, obviously, just because of the way the year started,” Mason said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get it above the .900 level and we’re obviously going to continue to work at getting it even better, with the way the team’s playing right now, and the way everybody’s clicking.
“I think we’re going to continue to try to build up the wins and with the wins I think you’ll see the stats improve as well.”
Matt Read, checked below the ribs early in a 4-2 win in Nashville Sunday night, was announced Monday night as being out for about four weeks due to an “upper body” injury. It’s a tough blow for the Flyers and Read, who started out the season with a scoring surge, and though he cooled off statistically has maintained a high level of play game-in and game-out.
Read has six goals and 10 points in 27 games. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall reacted quickly in calling up Taylor Leier from the Phantoms, while sending down Scott Laughton.
Leier, 22, has six goals and 20 points at Lehigh Valley this season, second on the team in scoring. The move to call him up seems to tell a lot about Laughton’s current status with the club, too. While Leier will likely get a chance Tuesday against Florida, injured Boyd Gordon should be close to returning.