Thanks to the struggles of the rest of the Metropolitan Division, the hole the Flyers dug for themselves in their first 15 games was not in the standings, more in their confidence and credibility.
The perception of fans and media always takes care of itself when the team starts to win. In the short and long runs, it is only what a hockey club thinks of itself that really matters. And both on nights the Flyers could manage only one good period, and games they couldn’t even do that, their self-image clearly was shaken.
The confidence is starting to come back now. Even before these three straight wins, the defensive end cleanup was underway. And perhaps an even better sign than the wire-to-wire dominance in Ottawa on Wednesday night was the win in Pittsburgh Thursday on a night the Flyers didn’t play nearly as well.
Nevertheless, on the second of back-to-back nights on the road, they beat a first place team. So while it is Craig Berube’s job to remind his players headed to Winnipeg tomorrow night that they dare not consider themselves cured, the helmets the Flyers wear -- or even the old Scott Hartnell haircut – can not hide the bulbs going back on in their brains. Eureka! This game still can be fun! And we might still be good at it, too!
Even on the worst night – and that 3-0 loss to the Devils the preceded this spurt of wins was near the worst we had seen since we began watching the Flyers almost nightly in 1975 – their goaltending never let that light extinguish. Through the 4-10-1 start, Steve Mason and Ray Emery should have worn not just masks but miner’s helmet with headlights on them. Not to help pick up the puck through screens, because they seemed to be having little trouble finding it. But Mason in particular has been a beacon helping teammates find their way out of the morass.
The Flyers have suffered arguably just one sub-standard night of goaltending in 18 games – Emery’s in Montreal is the season’s second game, -- quite the revelation in a Flyerland that since the early Ron Hextall has been waiting for a goalie that can win games for their team on bad nights.
And Emery did win Thursday game in Pittsburgh with his performance in the first period, just as Mason won that 2-1 squeaker over the Rangers that really proved the only encouraging thing that happened for the Flyers in a month and a half.
Nervous goalies make for nervous teams. The Flyers, learning a new system, were hesitant enough without adding the problem of worrying about their goaltender too. Before the offense started to come in the wins over Edmonton and Ottawa, they were playing better in their own end, surely a reflection of their confidence in the last line of defense behind them.
Emery did that in Pittsburgh for the first 10 minutes in which the Flyers were badly outplayed. Mason has done it throughout, particularly remarkable considering the makeover of his own game that he has undergone with goaltending coach Jeff Reese. After years of struggle in Columbus, Mason really had just the eight games he played for the Flyers after his trade in April to build a base of his own confidence.
There is a long ways to go to prove himself the long-lost, long-term answer, of course. Goalies prove themselves capable of carrying a team through the four-round grind that is Stanley Cup only by doing exactly that. The Flyers need an extended winning streak just to get themselves in position for a stretch drive that can even put them in the playoffs let along with them.
Still, Mason has performed illuminatingly and this test of what he is made of has been a good one. You learn the most about people through adversity. Mason showed he would keep fighting at a time so many of his teammates seemed to let up in their self doubt.
He looks big in the net, confident in handling the puck, fundamentally sound, and perhaps most important of all, competitive, as proven by how he had kept giving the Flyers a chance to win when they were doing little to make his life easier.
So far, that’s quite the package in exchange for the modest bundle of Michael Leighton and a third-round draft choice.