Best friends and roommates on the road for five seasons in Columbus, Umberger knew every little thing about Mason, and vice versa.
So when Umberger got together for dinner with his old friend last night – the first time the two had seen each other since Mason was traded from Columbus to Philadelphia last April – he was relieved to see him in such good spirits.
“He’s here and playing completely relaxed and enjoying himself,” Umberger said. “That’s what it’s all about – he’s having fun again. He was completely stressed [in Columbus]. I saw it all the time. He put a lot of pressure on himself. He got into listening to what a lot of people were saying and reading all the stories about him and that got into his head.”
And that’s the last thing a goaltender needs, struggling with the mental part of the game – especially since it’s such an integral position that requires an intense focus.
Mason let all of that get to him during the last four seasons in Columbus.
“You got to have thick skin and you have to be able to block that stuff out and focus – especially goalies,” Umberger said. “They’re completely mental. They have to be the strongest mental person on the team. Losing a couple years in a row was pretty miserable and the person that reflects on the most is the goaltender. He’s like the quarterback on a football team. He had the spotlight on him and he wasn’t living up to people’s expectations or his own and it just wore on him mentally for sure.
“Now he’s playing with that same confidence he had his rookie year. We always talked about the poise he had that rookie year. He looks like that again. He has confidence again. When I talked to him he said he likes the way he’s playing, so I think he’s mentally sound again… . I’m really happy he’s having success, He’s looking like the All-Star goalie he should be.”
His numbers are close to that caliber. His 2.34 goals against average is ninth among the 25 goalies who have at least 20 starts. His .924 save percentage is sixth in that same grouping.
And consider he had allowed 13 goals in his three starts prior to Tuesday’s win over Washington, it’s safe to say Mason has been the difference maker for the Flyers.
And, it’s even safer to say a few games having allowed a lot of goals would have been his undoing when he was with the Blue Jackets.
“It probably would have [knocked him off his game in Columbus],” Umberger said. “But you got to remember he’s an older goalie now and more mature having been in the league for six years. He’d be the first one to tell you he probably should have gone down to the minors the first couple years after that rookie season to get more experience, but we didn’t have that luxury because we needed him.”
Everyone knows Mason burst on the scene as a 19-year-old goalie, registering 10 shutouts, winning the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL, and leading the Jackets to their only playoff berth.
But from there, his hockey world crashed down around him like a tidal wave.
“He needed a fresh start,” Umberger said. “He almost hurt himself by having such a good rookie year. Expectations were so high … [and] he struggled to find his own game in his head. He had a lot of different people working with him and it just became too much for him. No one ever questioned his physical capabilities – he’s a big, solid goaltender who is athletic and – when he’s on his game – is scary good because he takes up so much of the net.”
But a fresh start in Philadelphia – a city notorious for goaltending drama and dilemmas – was not the place Umberger thought would be an ideal match.
“I thought it would be like oil and [water] coming to Philadelphia, but you know, he’s done a great job,” said Umberger, admitting that the strange bedfellows have seemed to mesh so far. “He got off to such a good start last season that he was able to build on that over the summer. He really likes the city too and gets along with all the guys on the team. He doesn’t have anything bad to say. I think it’s a good cultural fit for him right now.”
And the Flyers need it to be as Mason is going to have to be the keystone for the Flyers to earn a playoff berth this season.
And that path continues to night in the first of a home-and-home set with Columbus.
“It’s going to be fun [playing against him],” Umberger said. “I’m going to try to make his night miserable. I’m going to be in that crease all night… it’s going to be a battle and I’m going to try to get a couple on him.”
What are friends for, right?
NOTES: Brayden Schenn practiced in full this morning and is good to go for the game, saying he’s just dealing with neck soreness but that isn’t enough to keep him out of the lineup…
Vinny Lecavalier also skated and said he had a really positive day and felt very good on the ice. The timetable of 2-3 weeks for his return might be expedited if that’s the case. General Manager Paul Holmgren said team doctors don’t feel that Lecavalier can do anything to hurt himself further and that his return will be based solely on how he feels at this point…
Craig Berube won’t announce his starting goalie for Saturday in Columbus just yet, but don’t be surprised if Ray Emery gets the nod instead of Mason in his homecoming…
Nice catching up with Jody Shelley briefly this morning. Shelley is the radio color analyst for the Blue Jackets and is loving his new gig after retiring from the Flyers last season. “I’m really liking it,” he said. “I have a whole new respect for the work that goes into this side of the business.” Shelley added that he picked the brains of Flyers broadcasters Keith Jones and Chris Therien to see how they transitioned from playing to analyzing. According to a couple folks around the Jackets who would know, Shelley has been an immediate hit with the fans….
Flyers' prospect Scott Laughton was named the captain of the Canadian World Junior Team today. The tournament kicks off in Sweden next week...
Umberger, who now has three kids (where has the time gone?) also reminisced on his time in Philadelphia. As much as he enjoyed it here, he said his most recent memory was when the Jackets last played here in November 2011 and the Flyers pasted them 9-2. “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen a team play,” he said of his own squad. “The Flyers could have scored 15 goals if they wanted to. It was embarrassing. I’ve never been part of a worse effort by a team I was on at any level than that night.” …
If the Flyers win tonight, they will take over sole possession of third place in the Metropolitan Division, and be in a playoff spot for the first time all season.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers