The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers aren't sharing precious real estate at the top of the division standings right now, but this rivalry still will be on display when they face off Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS).
The Penguins usually are the team with the star players generating compelling storylines, but I think it's the Flyers who actually have one of the great untold stories of the early part of this season.
Things have been tough for Philly, but one thing a lot of people were questioning coming into the season has been answered. And that's the goaltending.
Steve Mason has retooled his game. I have to give Mason credit and I have to give Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese credit. I think we all know that Mason is talented and has the gifts to be a top-flight goalie in the League but he hasn't necessarily been the most focused. He hasn't necessarily worked as hard as he can off the ice in years gone by. He hasn't always practiced with the intensity that you need to be an elite goalie in this League. From all that I'm hearing so far this season, he's been doing those things.
When he was struggling with the Columbus Blue Jackets he was very susceptible to plays along the goal line or below the goal line; a lot of net attacks, a lot of wraparounds. That was an area of his game that needed improvement. That is now a big part of his game that has been improved since he's been with Philly.
Entering action Tuesday, Mason had a 2.34 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. Those numbers are excellent on any team. He's been an untold story in this League. To this point it's been a very positive story and I don't think enough people have mentioned it.
Reese has done some things with his positioning to make him a little more conservative at times, not challenging as much. But I don't think that tells the whole story. His puck tracking has been much better. He's done a much better job of fighting through traffic. He's more competitive and a lot more intense on the puck. It seems like he's a more focused and committed guy. His puckhandling has always been very good and it looks sharp once again.
The Flyers most definitely will have to be aware of James Neal, who returned to the Penguins lineup after missing almost the entire season so far due to injury. Neal is a 40-goal scorer and those kind of players are few and far between in our League.
He also gives you a different look coming into the offensive zone. It will force the Flyers when they're defending to have to make decisions. Am I overplaying Evgeni Malkin? Am I overplaying James Neal? That's a big part of it.
When Philly defends, it has to be smart in terms of puck management. The Flyers are going to need good on-ice communication when they defend. Your head has to be on a swivel because Pittsburgh does such a good job of interchanging and they have a lot of motion on their offense. They're not a stagnant team.
More than anything, though, this is just a great rivalry.
It's the battle of Pennsylvania. Ray Shero, who was part of the Hall of Fame ceremony Monday night, has done an incredible job as general manager of the Penguins. But when you look at the Shero history, his dad, Hall-of-Fame inductee Fred Shero, left such an impression on the city of Philadelphia and that franchise. Even all the players who have worn both jerseys (Mark Recchi, Jaromir Jagr, Maxime Talbot) adds to the history between these two franchises.
There is a lot of mutual respect between these two teams, but no love lost. That's for sure.