VOORHEES, N.J. -- Assuming he gets the start in net as he’s expected to, Steve Mason will play his most important game in five years Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Mason hasn’t made a playoff appearance since 2008-09 as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and he hasn’t so much as been in the playoff hunt since then either.
“It’s extremely exciting being a part of a playoff push,” Mason said. "It’s been a while for myself, and with the Flyers missing the playoffs last season, I think everybody was fed up with having a long summer. That’s not what hockey players enjoy. It’s the meaningful games that we’re having right now that make hockey fun.
“Right now, we’ve put ourselves in a good spot, but we can’t be taking games off like we did [Monday] night. You have to keep pushing forward.”
That’s exactly what the Mason and the Flyers will attempt to do Wednesday night. After their loss to the Los Angeles Kings Monday, and the Rangers’ overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, the Flyers fell into third place into the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers lead them by a point (see story).
There’s a lot at stake tonight: The season series. Playoff positioning. A critical two points (see story).
“It’s huge,” Mason said. “Just because, you look at us losing … and the Rangers winning, they leapfrogged us. Every point is huge. If we were able to get into overtime, that one point would have been the difference between us being ahead of them.
“[Tonight] if we can pull off a victory, it’s going to be huge in the standings, just like every other game for the remainder of the season.”
The Rangers are expected to start Henrik Lundqvist in net opposite Mason, which just drives the Flyers’ goaltender to play that much harder. Mason looked very good against the Rangers at the Wells Fargo Center earlier this season.
“You realize that you just have to be that much better, because you know he’s going to bring his best stuff every single night,” Mason said.
Tonight’s game marks the Flyers’ first chance to face off against Martin St. Louis as a Ranger.
It’s going to be strange for Vinny Lecavalier, St. Louis’ longtime teammate with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who said he was “shocked” at the trade deadline to learn of St. Louis’ being traded to the Rangers.
“It’ll be weird for sure,” Lecavalier said. “I watched a few games of theirs, but just to play against him -- it was weird playing against him this year when he was with Tampa, but to be in a different jersey, it’s going to be a little awkward, that’s for sure.”
Like the Kings and St. Louis Blues, the Rangers are a strong shot-blocking team. That’s sure to pose an extra challenge Wednesday, just as it did in the Flyers' loss Monday.
“We need to do a better job to get it through,” Claude Giroux said. “Sometimes it doesn’t have to be hard, it has to be on net and there will be rebounds around. We’ve got a lot of good guys that can get those rebounds in front of the net. At the end of the day it’s just about making sure it hits the net.”
Ryan White was whisking by to the visiting locker room when he had to stop.
With huge delight, the long-haired forward hugged a Flyers employee in bright orange athletic gear standing outside the laundry room.
The two exchanged hellos and good wishes before White’s path was impeded again.
None of this was a nuisance. This is what he loved.
“That’s probably the biggest thing I miss here in Philly is the people around the rink are great,” White said late Thursday night inside the Wells Fargo Center. “The guys from the locker room attendants to the security guys to people taking care of my girlfriend and stuff like that. It’s a special place to play and I always felt like I was welcomed here.”
White had just scored his first goal of the 2016-17 season. All offseason, he hoped and planned for the occasion to be in a Flyers sweater. He talked about his endearment for the organization trumping the worth of money elsewhere.
But on Thursday night, he was wearing an Arizona Coyote uniform and, what he called, “putting the final nail in the coffin” of a 5-4 loss for the Flyers.
“It feels good scoring here,” he said.
Not at all how he pictured it.
Playing fourth-line minutes (8:09), White somehow snuck a shot past Steve Mason from a nasty side angle with 4:19 remaining in regulation, making it 5-3 and virtually snuffing another Flyers comeback bid.
“Any time you’re coming back playing your old club, you want to make sure you get a win. … I loved playing as a Flyer, it was a lot of fun playing here,” White said. “Guys over there are a great group of guys, good coaching staff, good people in the organization. It’s just a special place to play.”
It’s where White wanted to be but he holds no ill will towards general manager Ron Hextall and the Flyers. Hextall liked and expressed interest in re-signing White, a role-playing fourth-liner, but went out and inked free-agent right winger Dale Weise (four-year, $9.4 million deal), more of a third-line player with similar attributes.
That signaled White’s end with the Flyers after two seasons.
“I think I’d be crazy if I didn’t want to come back here, it just didn’t work out,” White said. “I’m just happy I’ve gotten a chance to play in Phoenix and it’s been pretty good so far.”
White on Wednesday night caught up with former Flyers teammates Radko Gudas and Michal Neuvirth. While with the Flyers, he lived in the same building as the two. They all had dinner and White got to visit Gudas’ baby daughter.
On the ice, White, gritty and physical-minded, made his presence felt. He was penalized in the second period for charging Nick Cousins. He was also called for a delay of game penalty in the final two minutes for closing his hand on the puck. The Flyers scored on the power play, ironically turning White’s goal into the gamer-winner.
“He told me he just wanted the winning goal,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said with a laugh. “So that’s all that counts.”
White enjoyed the rough-and-tough nature against his old friends.
“All those guys play hard, they know how the game goes,” he said. “I had a little conversation with Gudy last night at dinner and he said, ‘You’re going to be running around out there.’ I figured it would be no other way. You’ve got to expect that coming from those guys, they’re a hard group over there.
“Those guys know how I play and they all play the same way, too, so it was fun.”
He also appreciated seeing the Flyers Heritage Night pregame ceremony honoring the organization’s legends, led by late founder Ed Snider. White kept tabs on the Flyers’ home opener last week when a banner commemorating Snider was raised to the rafters.
“I even heard about the first game coming back, it was pretty emotional in here,” he said. “It was a pretty special time playing here with Mr. Snider around. I think he’ll obviously be forever missed and like I said, it was just special to be a part of it.”
White wasn’t sure what to expect in his return. In the end, he wasn’t surprised.
“It’s funny, I thought maybe coming back here, it would be a little bit different,” White said. “But they’re a pretty welcoming group and it’s nice to be here.”
Even if it’s just for one game.
When he was introduced at center ice Thursday night, Rod Brind’Amour, who epitomizes what it meant to be a Flyer perhaps like no other player in franchise history, acknowledged the crowd.
And then the current Carolina assistant coach walked over to former teammate Eric Lindros and hugged him.
There were indeed some awkward moments for the two back in the 1990s, but they remain Flyers forever and this was Heritage Night for the organization’s Hall of Famers in celebration of their 50th Anniversary.
“You know I haven’t seen him in forever, and it was just fun and when we got out there we just said, ‘nice to be back on the ice again’, it’s been a long time and I haven’t seen him,” Brind’Amour explained of the gesture toward Lindros.
“I saw Johnny [LeClair] last year but it was just nice to catch up with these guys and relive some stories, we had a lot of great times so it was nice to see him.”
How ironic that Brind’Amour would get traded to Carolina for a larger centerman in Keith Primeau and eventually after the pain of separation from the Flyers womb had healed, he won a Cup with the Hurricanes.
Ask Roddy and he’ll tell you that Cup should have been won in Philly. He began the season as a member of the 1999-00 team that blew a 3-1 lead to the Devils in the Eastern Conference finals, but was traded at the mid-point.
To this very day, it ranks all-time as the most controversial trade the Flyers ever made. As if the very soul of the organization had been purged.
“Well I mean that’s the way it goes, right?” Brind’Amour said. “We had a great team. We had a great team back then, but trades happen and they were trying to make the team better. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, but had we stayed together who knows what could have happened.
“I’m just fortunate that I got that Cup because obviously, that is what I played for my whole life. Would it have been great to have it here? Yes, I mean that would have been something special, but that’s life. It doesn’t always work out the way you want it to.
“It was just unfortunate we didn’t win because we were one of the best teams in the league there for a long time and things just didn’t work out. It’s hard to win a Stanley Cup, let me tell you.”
He admitted there’s an orange ‘n black spot in his heart that will forever belong to the Flyers. That’s why he interrupted his own season in Carolina to return here for one night of memories.
He also said how much it meant to him last spring when club chairman Ed Snider reached out to him shortly before his death.
“I got a great phone call before Mr. Snider passed and him telling me what he thought I meant to this team,” Brind’Amour said.
“It meant a lot. So I really feel connected to the Flyers' organization again and I’ll take any chance I can to get back here and be a part of it.
“It has meant a lot to me to be back here and be in the fold. I love the alumni … so, any chance to get to reconnect with these guys means the world to me.”
Which is pretty much how Flyers fans felt about him, too.