As with anything worthwhile, new Flyers coach Craig Berube’s stronger team defense won’t happen overnight.
That’s a big part of why the Florida Panthers led 6-1 in shots after the first 3:30 on Tuesday. And 25-17 after 40 minutes. And 33-21 after 50 minutes.
Goalie Steve Mason, however, is the reason the Flyers won, 2-1 (see game recap).
“Our goalie played unbelievable for us tonight,” Scott Hartnell said. “He definitely won us the game, and that’s what you need in a goaltender -- to win you some games sometimes.”
Mason, making his second consecutive start of the season and third overall, kept his team alive in what was only the second game at the Wells Fargo Center of this young season. While the Flyers led 2-0 through almost all of the second period, that score is somewhat deceptive.
The Flyers once again committed some of the same sins that led to Peter Laviolette’s firing. They were sloppy in their own zone and silent through their five power-play chances. The two early goals they did score were thanks largely to a wildly out-of-position and injured Panthers goalie Tim Thomas.
Mason, though, was stellar and consistent throughout.
Berube spouted compliments about Mason’s game as if he were listing the qualifications of a Vezina winner.
“Composure in net,” Berube said. “He looked real solid. Right on top of things. Saw all the pucks. Just solid. Just looked big in net.”
In fact, the young Flyers’ goaltender has looked sharp through each of his three starts. On Tuesday, though, he brought it to another level, and was responsible for most -- if not all -- of the Flyers’ highlight reel.
With just about a minute left to play in the first, Mason stoned Panthers center Aleksander Barkov with an acrobatic move that required him to basically do a split in mid-air.
Early in the second, Mason made up for a Kimmo Timonen fumble that led to a shorthanded breakaway attempt by Shawn Matthias, turning away the centerman.
He remained calm in the third period when a Jay Rosehill penalty resulted in four minutes of shorthanded play for the defense in front of him, which hadn’t yet had a full practice to work on Berube’s new system.
“Part of the position is coming up big at key opportunities,” Mason said. “At the end of the first period, there were a couple saves that needed to be made in order to preserve the lead, and moving forward it was something to build off. Feeling good about that right now.”
The long goal Mason did give up came with just six seconds left in the second period, the kind of marker than can sway a game’s momentum. Instead, when he returned for the final stanza, Mason never lost a step.
It was exactly what the Flyers needed in order to escape Tuesday night with their first win of the season -- as captain Claude Giroux noted, the game itself was far from a pretty one.
In total, he stopped 33 Panthers shots.
“He played great,” Braydon Coburn said. “We needed him to play really good. He definitely stood on his head for us.”
“It could have been a very different hockey game if he didn’t have the game that he had,” Brayden Schenn added.
At his introductory press conference, Berube was asked how he’d prefer to handle the Flyers’ goalie situation -- whether he likes the idea of a tandem or he’d rather have a clear No. 1.
“I think that’ll work itself out,” he said at the time, coyly. He repeated the sentiment once again after Tuesday’s win: "That will play itself out."
As for Mason, he was honored to receive the start in Berube’s coaching debut, especially since it was the first time either he or Ray Emery had played back-to-back games since the regular season kicked off. Laviolette had remained true to the every-other-game goalie system.
“Regardless of what game it is, if you’re going in there that means the coach has confidence in you,” Mason said. “To get the back-to-back starts and be able to finally get the first one out of the way is definitely nice. But at the same time, it’s just one game. We have a whole schedule. It’s something to build off of, but it’s a small thing in the big picture right now.”
Based on how Tuesday worked itself out, however, it should be difficult for Berube not to award the start in Friday’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes to Mason.
It’s far from on Mason’s mind, however. To him and to Emery, the new coach doesn’t reawaken any kind of debate on starting goaltenders.
“That’s up to Chief to decide who goes in,” he said. “I’ll never go and ask him if I’m playing. I’ll wait to hear from him.”