On Steve Mason slumping: if it’s not one thing for the Flyers, it’s another

On Steve Mason slumping: if it’s not one thing for the Flyers, it’s another

For a long stretch, the main reason the Philadelphia Flyers had a chance to win on any given night was between the pipes. Steve Mason, acquired from Columbus at last season’s trade deadline for Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, had played himself into early Vezina Trophy conversations over the first two months of the season.

Then the calendar flipped to December.

The last few games have not been so kind to Mason. After going 26 contests without allowing more than three goals in a Flyers uniform, the 25-year-old has done so three times in his last four starts. Most recently, Mase did his part to cough up a three-goal lead to the Capitals in the contest’s final 10 minutes on Sunday, eventually picking up the loss in a shootout.

That dropped Mason’s record to 1-1-2 over the last four. He’s posted an .890 save percentage and 3.31 goals against average in six appearances total for the month of December.

The natural concern—albeit hastily reached—is Mason is merely reverting to form. After all, there’s a reason he could be had at a discount last April. The 2008-09 Rookie of the Year had been mired in a years-long freefall before he arrived in Philadelphia. Maybe that’s just who he is.

For what it’s worth, the kid’s confidence doesn’t seem shaken, which most believe was part of the problem in Columbus. Inquirer beat writer Sam Carchidi spoke to an upbeat Mason for the Tuesday edition:

"Nothing to lose sleep over," the goalie said with a smile Monday after practice at the Wells Fargo Center.

...

"Call it a couple of bad-luck goals, but it's nothing I'm too worried about," Mason said. "There's been so many positive things, and just because a couple of goals have gone in, I'm not going to stray from what has been working. It's a long season and those things are going to happen; it's just how you handle that little bit of adversity."

Unfortunately, Mason’s slump—or whatever this is—happens to correlate with a slight uptick in offense for the orange and black. Over the first 15 games of the season, Philadelphia potted a putrid 1.46 goals per game. In the 18 tilts since, the team is averaging a solid 3.00, yet two of their higher-scoring efforts have been wasted in shootout losses in the last eight days.

And the Flyers still aren’t scoring consistently. They’ve only eclipsed two goals in four of their last 11, so let’s not go hanging any mission accomplished banners for the offense. It’s a work in progress.

That’s the problem the club seems to be having now. For months, they had to rely on stellar goaltending to hang most nights. Now they’re finally lighting the lamp with a bit more frequency, but the netminder isn’t standing on his head every night.

It’s unfair to Mason given the season he’s been having, and he’ll have a chance to turn things around. It also ignores the role of the defense in front of the crease, particularly a lineup of defensemen that returned almost everybody from last season’s much maligned unit. Let's not forget, backup netminder Ray Emery hasn't exactly looked sharp lately, either.

Then again, few people probably thought Mason would play himself into early Vezina consideration. His performance in the early part of the year, though it kept the Flyers afloat, was not entirely counted upon in the first place.

All of which speaks to the broader problem with the team, that it still appears to be broken. When the Flyers get great goaltending, they can’t score. When the Flyers score in bunches, they falter defensively and in net. Maybe at some point this season, everything will start clicking at the right time.

So far, that’s not been the case. Either they need to be a great scoring team or a great goaltending team, because it doesn’t appear they’re going to be both. Lately, they’ve been neither.

>> Mason says he's not worried after bad outing [Inq]

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

There’s a number of reasons why the Flyers have a five-game winning streak, why they’re playing better hockey, and why they own the No. 1 wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
 
Perhaps the biggest reason of all is goaltender Steve Mason, who has won four of those games, compiling a 1.71 goals against average and .945 save percentage during that span.
 
Mason was named the NHL’s first “Star of the Week” on Monday. St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones were second and third stars.
 
“The team is on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that,” said Mason, who needs a win Tuesday against Florida to tie his career-high streak of five set Dec. 17-30 in 2013, during his first, full season as a Flyer.
 
“There’s strong play in front of me. The team is playing a little tighter in our defensive zone of late and making the goaltender reads that much more simple. 
 
“Right now, there’s a comfort level with the guys in front of me … Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making ground in the standings.”
 
His four victories last week were tops in the NHL. Among them, he had a season-high 45 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against Boston. 
 
Like many goalies, Mason prefers action. Games such as the 3-2 overtime win at Ottawa last week when the Senators only fired 21 shots, bother him.
 
“Those games, when you are not getting a lot of shots, the ones you do get will be a high-grade scoring chance,” he said. “And when you’re sitting around a few minutes not seeing the puck and all of a sudden see a chance like that …
 
“It’s more difficult to play [those games] than the games where there is a constant workload and you’re not thinking, but just playing. For myself personally, those are the games I enjoy the most. When I see a lot of pucks.”
 
The Flyers have seen dramatic improvement over the past month in their overall defensive play, from both their defensemen in down-low coverage in the slow and with their forwards on the backcheck.
 
Mason said the team has gone through “growing pains” with trying to integrate some younger bodies to the lineup this season – Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nick Cousins  come to mind.
 
“You have to familiar with everybody,” he said. “Have a constant lineup where guys go out  shift after shift and night after night, you know what to expect from one another. When you have that kind of confidence in guys, it makes playing easier.” 
 
Mason’s 4-2 victory at Nashville on Sunday saw him go over .500 for the first time this season with a 9-8-3 record. 
 
His GAA is coming down at 2.76 while his save percentage has risen to .904.
 
“I was aware of it obviously, just because of the way the year started,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get it above the .900 level.
 
“We’re obviously going to continue to work at getting it even better. The way the team’s playing right now and the way everybody’s clicking, we’re going at a good pace right now.”