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Greenberg: Mason-Neuvirth, perfect 1-2 punch in net

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

While strictly alternating Phil Myre and Pete Peeters through 35 straight unbeaten games in 1979-80, Pat Quinn didn’t feel any need to designate a No. 1 goaltender.

So that is Dave Hakstol’s story too, and he is sticking to it.

He doesn’t have an A and a B, only a goalie for Tuesday night against Colorado, whenever he decides who that will be. This is not a burden but a blessing. It is good to be the coach who is in position to actually have a tough choice.

Not so fortunate last season was Craig Berube when he had to go to Ray Emery, or, when Emery missed some starts, even third-stringer Rob Zepp. It was a hard way to watch Emery, now backing up for the Kings’ AHL team in Ontario, California, go out. Had it not been for avascular necrosis, a disease that struck him within months after he had first signed with the Flyers in 2009-10, they might have won those two more games that would have given them the Stanley Cup that season.

Not only was Emery that talented, but also that determined to come back, performing a semi miracle in Anaheim and Chicago before re-signing with the Flyers. Emery did a solid job in his first season backing up Mason, then, during his absence, won Game 2 in New York of the first round series.

BEST OF MASON

      WATCH: Spin-o-rama save
      WATCH: Robs Pastrnak of a sure goal
    

The loss of Emery’s once-athleticism was obvious, though, particularly exposed in shootouts. When Mason missed nine games last February, the Flyers went 3-6. This season, as a personal problem and an illness have kept Mason from being available for six of the seven Michal Neuvirth starts, the Flyers are 3-2-1. Neuvirth has a league-high three shutouts, a goals against average of 1.81, and a ridiculously high save percentage of .945. Should you prefer to trust your eyes than early-season percentages, he has not let in a clunker goal yet.

It took a virtual kick-in off a rebound to beat him in overtime in Calgary and some slam-dunks to win that game for the Oilers in Edmonton. Neuvirth is big, quick, and keeps both the puck out of the net and any theories he might have about the meaninglessness of this hockey life amidst the vast universe to himself.

That noted, we suggest that the planets are aligned this season to give the Flyers the best night-in, night-out goaltending they had had since young Ron Hextall. This also could be their greatest tandem since the earliest franchise days with Bernie Parent and Doug Favell.

This may not be the highest praise, considering how many goalies the Flyers have gone through since the early nineties. And, to be fair, there is some history of excellent relief efforts, such as Bob Froese’s when sophomore Pelle Lindbergh struggled in 1983-84. Two young goalies expected to be backups as seasons opened, -- Brian Boucher and Robert Esche respectively -- carried the team on semifinal runs in 2000 and 2004. And certainly Sergei Bobrovsky was a first string talent, he just never showed it again here after Mr. Universe, Ilya Bryzgalov, was signed.

Nevertheless, it has been decades since the Flyers have had the potential to enjoy two goalies, both so talented, both coming into their prime years.

BEST OF NEUVIRTH

      WATCH: Mason robs Jets' Perreault
      WATCH: Denies Hossa on breakaway
      WATCH: Diving save at Florida
    

Their offensively-compromised chances of competing to the end for a playoff spot will come down not only to their goalie’s performance from goalpost to goalpost, but between the ears. Fairly or unfairly, the compete levels of both Mason and Neuvirth have been questioned. Both 27, both nagged by relatively small, but untimely physical setbacks, the only post-season series win between them was by Neuvirth for Washington in the 2011 playoffs over the Rangers, although Mason surely came close in 2014 after entering in Game 4 against the Rangers.

Usually when a goalie such as Neuvirth reaches this age without establishing himself as a No. 1, there are reasons, but, in his case, those may be only bad timing and lack of consistent opportunity.

The Capitals, who drafted him, deemed him their guy, and traded Semyon Varlamov.

But after going 27-12-4 (2.45) in 2010-11, winning that series against the Rangers and getting swept by Tampa Bay, Neuvirth got hurt often enough to make the Caps want veteran Tomas Vokoun. When Vokoun became injured, Neuvirth did too, enabling Braden Holtby to seize the opportunity.

Traded to Buffalo in a deal that included Jaroslav Halak, Neuvirth kept the struggling Sabres in games but his contract was expiring. Buffalo was determined to get what it could for him, which turned out to be goalie Chad Johnson. Neuvirth was traded at last March’s deadline to the Islanders, who, when Neuvirth said he was hoping to land a No. 1 job in free agency, moved quickly to sign Thomas Greis to backup Halak.

When he signed quickly with the Flyers for two years, Neuvirth wasn’t promised that No. 1 job but received an opportunity to compete for it. There were undoubtedly snickers in Washington when Neuvirth, coming off back-to-back shutouts in his Flyers’ debut, had to miss the next few games. But, perfect in shutting out Winnipeg Saturday night, he certainly looks healthy now and so does the team’s goaltending situation.

The Flyers don’t have the luxury of taking a night off, nor of granting one to the only goalie who gives them a chance. And now they no longer must take that risk.

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