Steve Mason will start Game 4 but there was never a goalie controversy anyway

Steve Mason will start Game 4 but there was never a goalie controversy anyway

After what transpired in Game 3 this past Tuesday night, you could see this one coming from a mile away.

Philadelphia Flyers head coach Craig Berube confirmed today that Steve Mason will be back between the pipes and start Game 4 against the New York Rangers tomorrow night at Wells Fargo Center.

It seems like Mason is fully healthy from that mysterious upper-body injury he suffered in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the last weekend of the regular season.

And while backup Ray Emery filled in admirably in Games 1 and 2 and was arguably the Flyers’ best player in those two games leading some to think there was some sort of controversy brewing, Mason is and was always the No. 1 goalie when fully healthy.

And for good reason.

Mason earned the spot with the way he played this season. He finished with a 33-18-7 record, .914 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against average in 61 regular-season appearances while separating himself from Emery. Granted Emery made just 28 appearances in the regular season, but you get the point.

No slight toward Emery as he’s done exactly what’s been asked of him in the backup role this season, but Mason is and always has been the better option, no questions asked.

And that bodes even more true in this series against the Rangers for a couple of reasons.

First, Mason has superior lateral movement.

Look at most of the goals the Rangers have scored so far in the series. Most of the goals have come as a result of Emery being forced to move post-to-post and that isn’t his strong point these days, especially after that near career-ending hip surgery he underwent a few years ago during his first stint as a Flyer.

With all the puck possession the Rangers have had in this series, it has allowed their playmakers to make slick passes and get Emery moving as Flyers defenders have been on their heels.

Mason is much better going post-to-post so he’ll have better opportunities to shut down those kinds of Rangers chances. That’s huge, especially if the Rangers continue to control the puck as much as they have in the series. We haven’t seen any reason so far to think they won’t.

Second, Mason is a much better at handling the puck than Emery is. In fact, Mason is one of the better puck-handling goaltenders in the entire league.

That’s a huge weapon because of how effective the Rangers have forechecked so far in the series. They’ve won the majority of the board battles after dump-ins and chip-ins and those won battles have led to a ton of scoring chances.

Mason has the ability to come out of his net and deftly play the puck to a teammate or out of the zone before the Rangers can start their forecheck and help start the Flyers down the other end of the ice.

Think along the lines of two years ago when the Flyers played the New Jersey Devils in the second round.

Then Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette’s aggressive forechecking system was thwarted before it began because of the way Devils goalie Marty Brodeur played the puck. The Flyers were never able to figure out a real way around that.

Now Mason is not Brodeur when it comes to playing the puck. No goalie is. But that puck-handling presence could toss a major wrench into the way the Rangers attack.

In case you tuned out, Emery was pulled in third period of Game 3 and replaced by Mason, who made three saves in 7:15 of ice time.

But cut Emery some slack. He obviously wasn’t great in Game 3 and most of the goals he let in were softies. Derek Stepan and Dan Carcillo’s goals had no business going in. Dan Girardi’s goal was a rocket from the blue line but Emery still had a shot at it. Only Marty St. Louis’ deflection from the high slot was the one Emery had no shot at.

But Emery was far from the only reason the Flyers lost Game 3. They barely had any sort of puck possession or real, sustained offensive-zone time. They had 31 shots on net but how many times was Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist truly tested?

The Flyers once again couldn’t stay out of the penalty box as they took five penalties and if it wasn’t for two really dumb penalties by Rangers forward Benoit Pouliot that negated Rangers power plays, the first period could have been a whole lot worse.

The Flyers’ power play was also a mess as it went 0-for-5 and generated just three total shots on goal. They also struggled mightily getting shots through to Lundqvist as the Rangers blocked 28 shots but it seemed like they blocked a million of them.

The good news is that there are two days off between Games 3 and 4. That’s two days of adjustments for the Flyers to make before the puck is dropped tomorrow night.

Actually not falling behind by two goals in the first period and jumping out to a lead would be a nice adjustment to start with.

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.