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.