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Greenberg: Mason's upward climb

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

In his last six starts, Steve Mason has let in more than three goals just once. For the season, he has a better save percentage than Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, Ryan Miller and Ben Bishop. From teams not currently in playoff position, only two goalies who have made more than 15 starts have a better save percentage than Mason’s .918.

He didn’t make the Flyers best save of the night on Tuesday night against Tampa Bay. Nick Schultz did on Jonathan Drouin during a scramble in the first period, but Mason followed with a hugely-athletic stop in getting his pad out on Victor Hedman (watch below).

The Flyers didn’t win, but until Valtteri Filppula hit the empty net, their goalie gave them a chance, the same one Mason has presented this team since he was picked out of Columbus’s scrap heap during the 2013 season.

Really was there a loss last year, when Mason had a .917 save percentage, just .001 off the number that made him a second team NHL All Star, where his goaltending was the primary reason for a Flyer loss? Since he got beat by Dainius Zubrus in the home opener, spoiling a huge comeback, has a bad goal killed an otherwise inspired effort?

To get into the conversation among the league’s elite – and in today’s NHL that list might be 15 deep, not just three, four or five – Mason, of course needs to win some playoff series. And to give himself that opportunity this season, he has to start winning some shootouts. But after 30 games, he is well on his way to giving the Flyers their first back-to-back years of strong goaltending since Roman Cechmanek eleven seasons ago.

BEST OF MASON
Watch the best saves of the year by Steve Mason below

WATCH: Mason stretches to rob Tampa D Hedman
WATCH: Mason robs several Islanders attempts
WATCH: Glove save on Yakupov without his stick

We all remember how that came out for Cechmanek in the ultimate wash, the playoffs. But only Mason’s injury absence in the first three games made the list of reasons the Flyers lost to the Rangers last spring, none of his goals against. Nor should Mason appear on any responsible itemization for the Flyers’ failures during the 1-8-1 skid from which they currently are digging out.

Long way to go in this season, a good thing with the Flyer looking up at so many teams.

Long way to go in the 26-year-old Mason’s career, an even better thing for the franchise’s long term outlook.

In the meantime, it is not too early to declare over an almost three-decade stretch where the Flyers goaltending was the most questionable part of their team. The worst fears of Mason, who tanked after a good rookie year in Columbus, not being able to handle his relative prosperity of 2013-14 have dissipated. The days of unscreened 55-foot goals are over, along with all the breatholding that accompanied them. Mason is a good goaltender on the way to getting better.

Tuesday night, the Lightning got one goal scorer’s goal from the most gifted goal scorer in the league, Steven Stamkos, another one off a carom before Luke Schenn, just released from the penalty box, could get back into play. Tampa Bay, perhaps the Eastern Conference’s best team, then turned center ice into a mudbath, the kind of loss where you tip your cap and move on.

Next, we’ll see if the Flyers, whose last stretch of promising play dissolved too quickly after a sloppy loss to Columbus, have gotten better at moving on.

Certainly their goalie has.

“He has good numbers, just hasn’t gotten the wins,” said Head Coach Craig Berube.

To get those wins, you need game-in, game-out defensive structure, secondary scoring, and a practiced mentality that keeps the in-game sags short and the surges long. You also need the big stops Mason gave the Flyers in the first period Tuesday night, enabling them to get to the break with a 1-0 lead.

When he was yanked on Thanksgiving eve in Detroit after giving up three screened goals, it wasn’t just to shake up the troops. Berube didn’t think Mason was fighting hard enough to see the puck, “One of the things we are working on with him,” said the coach.

This, only the fifth season where Mason will get 50-plus starts, hardly is the top of his learning curve. He is not reluctant to point the finger at himself, nor comment on the team’s efforts as a whole, leadership qualities we haven’t seen in a Flyers crease since Ron Hextall.

“I think Steve is competing hard,” said Berube, “practicing to get better.”

His performance has been screened by the team’s current record. You have to fight to see through 11-14-5 to realize the Flyers have found a goalie they can win with.

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