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Greenberg: Sharper in shootouts

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers
The purist argues the purest problem with the shootout is that the pass, the most visually beautiful thing about the game, becomes no factor in deciding it.  

As the American Hockey League experiments with a three-on-three following the four-on-four, trying to reduce the number of shootouts, that debate is ongoing.

The Flyers have the worst record of any NHL team in shootouts since their inception in the 2005-06 season. So as far as they are concerned, the penalty shot contest has been the worst invention since Bob Nystrom. 
    SHOOTOUT:  Mason Saves; Simmonds scores

Until Mason beat Ottawa three weeks ago, the Flyers had lost 10 straight, no way to squeeze into a tight playoff spot or keep the cars in the Wells Fargo Center parking lot until Lou Nolan tells you it’s time to go home.

Thus it has become an obligation for Steve Mason to learn to love the shootout, even if he has admitted to preferring to leave it.  

Hey, if you are a goalie, you have to see the advantages.

In the shootout, you cannot get beat on a deflection, through a screen, or when a pass goes off your defenseman’s foot.  Tuesday night Mason saw every Coyote coming – Sam Gagner, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Antoine Vermette -- and beat them all for his second straight win in the overtime that follows the overtime.

Holy Henrik Lundqvist!  That’s seven of the last eight free shots Mason has stopped, producing two extra points that, whether or not they turn out to have any value towards an extended playoff push, should be invaluable going forward for the goalie with which the Flyers are going forward.

“Confidence is a big part of it for sure, for the goalies and the shooters,” has said Craig Berube.  “Some players aren’t very good at it or don’t think they are good at it.”

Two wins don’t yet make Mason good at it. But ultimately nothing succeeds like success, and nothing defines coaching better than putting players in positions to succeed.

It was Mason who stopped Ekman-Larsson with his blocker, closed the pads on Vermette, forced Gagner to shoot high and wide until Wayne Simmonds connected, just like against Ottawa 10 games ago. But it has been goaltending coach Jeff Reese that has taken Mason off the goalline and given him a better chance.

Reese looked up stats that told him Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov were among the best at the post-sudden death test. Mentor and Mase looked on video for reasons why.

“Fleury kind of waits for shooters to get across the blueline a couple steps then he explodes out,” Mason says.  “The shooter sees a lot of net and then [Fleury] fires out and takes it away, which might throw the shooter off a little.

“He’s unpredictable, will throw out a fake pokecheck where he’s not fully extending his stick, and bring it back in.”

Turns out one of those dirty, lowdown, Pittsburgh guys is good for something.  Mason reeled in those Coyotes like fish, completing a big-time rescue job after Ray Emery flubbed one of his glove, then gave up a good goal to put the Flyers down 2-0 before six minutes had been played.

Most of the action thereafter was in the Arizona end, no great help to Mason after missing 16 days with his second injury setback of the season. But he stopped everything except Tobias Rieder’s breakaway and remained down the list of reasons why the Flyers still are two games under .500 with 33 games to go.

Of course, if they are to get hot this year and become really good in subsequent years, their goaltender has to be better than just not the problem, rather become the solution.  The longest journey begins with the smallest step, or a big step out as the shooter roars in.   

“To have success the last two times is nice because we put the work in and because it’s been an Achilles heal for this hockey club,” said Mason.  “It’s not always fun practicing things you are not good at so it’s nice to be rewarded for something you put a little extra work into.”

It’s the space between the ears that becomes most critical to covering the most possible space between the pipes.  Mason is a good goalie, hopefully, at age 26 on the way to becoming one of the better ones. Solving the shootouts is part of that process.
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