To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine which goaltender is better equipped to backstop his team into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Washington Capitals' Braden Holtby or the Philadelphia Flyers' Steve Mason.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals enter their Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2) separated by two points in the standings. Each team features a high-scoring offense and a defense that has had questionable performances.
They also have one other thing in common. Each has a goaltender looking to prove he can backstop his team to a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Each has been to the postseason before. As a rookie, Mason was the man in net for the Columbus Blue Jackets' only postseason appearance in 2009. However it was a short stay, as the Blue Jackets were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
Holtby has been the Capitals' starter in the playoffs the past two seasons, but has won just one of three playoff series.
So as the stretch drive to the 2014 playoffs gets into gear, is one goalie better equipped to backstop his team to a long run in the postseason?
The Capitals selected Holtby, 24, in the fourth round (No. 93) of the 2008 NHL Draft. He spent one more season with his junior team, the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League. After splitting his first professional season between the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and the South Carolina Sting Rays of the ECHL, Holtby earned his first NHL call-up Oct. 25, 2010, when Semyon Varlamov was injured, and played his first game in relief of starter Michael Neuvirth on Nov. 5. He played in four more games, but was back in Hershey before the end of November. He was called up two other times in the 2010-11 season and established himself as a potential No. 1 NHL goaltender by going 10-2-2 with two shutouts, a 1.79 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 14 games.
The following season Holtby got into seven NHL games, but late injuries to Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun left him the starter for the 2012 playoffs and he took full advantage. In the first round against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins he allowed two goals in the first two games, and in Game 7 at TD Garden he stopped 31 of 32 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory. He got the Capitals to another Game 7 in the second round, against the New York Rangers, but couldn't work the same magic, stopping 29 of 31 shots in a 2-1 loss.
Holtby spent the lockout with Hershey, but when the 2012-13 NHL season started he earned the No. 1 job, going 23-12-1 with four shutouts, a 2.58 GAA and .920 save percentage. He had his first postseason shutout in Game 2 of the first round against the Rangers, but in Game 7 at home he allowed five goals on 27 shots when the Caps' season came to a rough end.
In 21 playoff games Holtby is 10-11 with a 2.04 GAA and .931 save percentage. He's hoping to add to those numbers this season. After starting as one of five goalies invited to Hockey Canada's summer Olympic evaluation camp, he's had an uneven 2013-14 season. In 39 games he's 19-13-3 with a 2.94 GAA and .911 save percentage. His GAA is 34th among 40 qualifying goaltenders and his save percentage is 28th.
The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Mason, 26, in the third round (No. 69) of the 2006 NHL Draft. He spent two more seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, including an outstanding run to the gold medal with Canada at the 2008 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Mason made his professional debut the following season with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. He only played three AHL games, however, before he was summoned to the NHL after an injury to Pascal Leclaire. He won his first three starts and quickly supplanted Leclaire and backup Fredrik Norrena as the No. 1 goalie in Columbus. Mason had a dazzling rookie season, going 33-20-7 with a 2.29 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and a League-leading 10 shutouts, and was rewarded with the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.
Mason's efforts helped the Blue Jackets finish seventh in the Western Conference and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. However, Mason had a rough go against the Red Wings, allowing 17 goals in four games as the Blue Jackets quickly were eliminated.
However, the big season raised expectations to an almost unreachable level and Mason struggled to even come close to them. His win total dropped from 33 to 20 and his GAA rose by nearly one full goal (2.29 to 3.06) as the Blue Jackets dropped to 14th in the conference.
Mason's struggles continued the next two seasons with his win total dropping, his GAA above 3.00 and his save percentage right around .900. In 2012-13, the Blue Jackets acquired Sergei Bobrovsky from the Philadelphia Flyers, and after Bobrovsky took over the No. 1 role, Mason was dealt to the Flyers at the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline.
The change of scenery did wonders for Mason, who went 4-2-0 with a 1.90 GAA and a .944 save percentage in seven games with the Flyers. Mason enjoyed his time in Philadelphia so much he signed a one-year contract extension at a reduced salary to remain with the team.
This season Mason beat out Ray Emery for the No. 1 job and persuaded the Flyers to sign him to a three-year extension. In 47 games he's 25-15-5 with a 2.57 GAA and .915 save percentage. His GAA is 22nd among 40 qualifying goaltenders, and his save percentage is 20th.
Mason and Holtby have had stretches where they've been good but also inconsistent, and their play has in some ways mirrored their teams. So is either a good bet to lead their team to the postseason?
The vote now has to go to Mason, but solely because his team is currently in a playoff spot with 20 games remaining. However, as tight as the standings are, if this question were asked a week from now it might have a different answer.
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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