PHILADELPHIA -- Philly has always been such fertile ground for goaltending controversies.
So when Philadelphia Flyers starting goaltender Steve Mason was injured on the final weekend of the regular season, another dose of uncertainty in net only seemed fitting, with the Flyers set to take on the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.
But Mason’s return to action Friday effectively squashed any lingering doubts between the pipes -- both about his health and his ability to handle the glaring spotlight of playoff hockey.
Making his first start of the postseason, and first postseason appearance since his rookie year in 2009, the 25-year-old Mason was simply superb, making 37 saves to help top the Rangers 2-1 in Game 4 at Wells Fargo Center.
“He played very well,” said Flyers coach Craig Berube. “He looked really confident, right from the get-go, and he had to be in the first period.”
Unlike on Tuesday, when he was given approximately seven minutes of mop-up duty with Game 3 already decided, Mason had absolutely no time to ease his way back in against a Rangers team that came out buzzing. Mason’s first save of the game was a tough one -- Derick Brassard connected with Mats Zuccarello for a Grade A chance in front of the net on the Rangers’ second shift -- and he barely had time to recover throughout the rest of the opening period.
The Rangers got a goal early when Dominic Moore buried his own rebound on a wraparound, just barely beating Mason to the right post at 4:38. But Mason remained composed even as his Flyers were outshot 16-6.
What helped him through? “Just to be able to get into the game right off the bat,” Mason told reporters after the game. “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.”
Mason stood tall the rest of the way for the Flyers, who seemed to receive a boost from his stellar play. The 31-year-old Ray Emery proved himself a capable fill-in with Mason sidelined with an upper-body injury, but Mason went above and beyond that Friday.
“He battles hard,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who guaranteed a win in Game 4 following Tuesday’s 4-1 loss. “It’s not just in games. It’s in practice, too. It’s great to see when he’s going. When he’s going, a lot of guys are going.”
Mason earned the first lead of his playoff career when Jake Voracek's expert tip of Brayden Schenn's shot on the power play gave the Flyers a 2-1 advantage. He did everything in his power to preserve that lead.
The win was not only a critical one in terms of tying the series at two games apiece, but in providing Mason the confidence that he is up to the task.
Mason insists he is a different player -- and a different person -- now, and the Flyers seem convinced of that, too. Earlier this season, they gave him a three-year contract extension, banking on him being their goaltender of the future. It seemed a risky move to some, given his lack of playoff success.
The scrutiny will continue, no doubt. After all, it's Philly. Any goaltender in this city better have thick skin, and Mason had no problem putting Friday's win in perspective.
“It’s great,” he said. “I have waited a long time for it, but one win doesn’t do very much in the long run.”
Mason has done nothing more than win one playoff game. But he hopes this is just the beginning of bigger things to come. And after being forced to watch from afar, he’s just happy to be back in the thick of the action.
“It’s playoff time, and it’s fun to be a part of this,” he said. “I think if you treat it as a fun situation, you’re going to give yourself a better opportunity to have success.”