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Strong summer, strong start

by Brian Smith | PhiladelphiaFlyers.com / Philadelphia Flyers

For the past two years, the ongoing quip when it comes to analyzing the play of Steve Mason is that the Flyers finally don’t have to worry about their goaltending. And it does have some merit. After a good four years of several bodies moving in and out of the Flyers’ crease, Mason played 112 games over the past two seasons, the most for a single Flyers goaltender over two campaigns since Marty Biron played 117 games over the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons.

And not only did he play all those games, but he played them well. And judging by Mason’s two preseason appearances, and barring injury, it looks as if that will be the case again this year. Mason has appeared to hit the ice in mid-season form, and was extremely impressive in Monday’s game at the New York Rangers. Despite the 3-2 overtime loss, Mason made 41 saves and kept the Flyers in the contest throughout the night.

There’s a reason for Mason’s strong camp so far, and it may have something to do with Rob Zepp.

What’s the connection? Well, last year, while many people following the team were focused on Zepp’s background in Europe and his attempt to finally make it in the NHL at the age of 33, Mason thought Zepp was the best goalie in camp – specially in his conditioning. Some investigation led Mason to a goalie coach named Doug Franco who’s based out of the Toronto suburb of Vaughn, Ontario, close to both Mason’s and Zepp’s hometowns. That’s where Mason spent this past summer, training with Zepp and Franco in a manner in which he’d never trained before.

“I guess Zepper’s been working with Dave as long as he can remember,” Mason said. “Actually my goalie partner from when I played for London (in the OHL) told me to come out and work with [Franco] and I never did, and now I’m starting to regret not going out and working with him. He gave me this unbelievable base to come into camp with and this fact that he would run Zepper and I as the only two out on the ice. It was the one guy is in net, the other guy is trying to catch his breath, and before you could catch your breath you were back in net.”

Up until this summer, Mason had just taken the traditional route of skating with a group of NHL players to stay in shape during the offseason. While that’s often beneficial for the skaters, Mason came to realize that it doesn’t really do much for the goaltenders.

“Summer hockey is tailored for players,” he said. “There’s no goalie drills. The guys just come down and do 3-on-0s, breakaways, and back door plays. This summer I was able to just do goalie-specific work and work on your movements, your tracking, the puck work. The shooters that we have, they aren’t just having fun out there. They’re placing shots where it’s for the goaltender’s benefit, not for the players.”

It’s something that Ron Hextall did not have at his disposal back when he was playing.

“There was nothing goalie specific,” Hextall said. “All they did with us was gave us our equipment and said go get ‘em.”

Mason also came to Voorhees two weeks early to begin working with new goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh. His offseason work with the two coaches has him feeling better than ever at this point in camp, and so far, it’s showed.

“Two years ago I thought that I felt really good to start off the season,” he said. “Last season I kind of felt like in camp I was almost playing catch up a little bit, whereas this summer working with a goalie coach this summer and then being able to come in two weeks early and get on the ice early with Kim here really gave me that level of readiness to start camp and right from day one it’s gotten better as camp has gone along with tracking and just how comfortable I feel out there. From where I am starting out this season is a big difference from last year.”

In addition, Mason’s got the benefit of experience on his side. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2009, but had a hard time replicating that season in subsequent years. That’s part of what made him available to the Flyers when they traded for him in 2013. He posted a 1.90 GAA and .944 save percentage in seven games at the end of that 2012-13 season, and has built upon that for the past two years. In fact, last season, Mason led the league in save percentage in 5-on-5 situations at .944, and his goals-against average in the same situations was a 1.73, just six percentage points behind Carey Price’s league-best 1.67.

“I think Mase has become a pro,” Hextall said. “He’s obviously in better shape than he was in his early career and I think the maintenance part for him, he knows his body. The nutrition part, I think all of our guys are getting better. So Mase has come a long way and I think again, you leave the game and you always ask people how you want to be remembered and most guys say I want to be remembered as a good teammate and a pro and I think Mase is getting to the point where he’s a good pro.”

Take Monday’s game for instance. The Flyers had a slow start to that game, but perhaps somewhat lost in the aftermath of banged-up players and the way the game ended was that the team had not had a typical day. It had traveled from Philadelphia to New York via train the day of the game and arrived about two hours before puck drop, which is much different than the customary practice of arriving in a town the night before and going through a normal gameday routine. Mason said in past years, that might have thrown him off, but not now.

“It just didn’t feel like a normal game day just because we traveled the day of, and I think when I was younger that would have taken over my mindset where I would have gone through a lot,” Mason said. “I’m going into my eighth year now and I feel like my head is in a good place, my level of preparation is much better than it was, and just the mental toughness of knowing what you’ve gone through to get to a certain point I think prepares you for a lot.”

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