Goaltending plays an integral part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so NHL.com is breaking down the battle between the pipes in each series this season, charting goals to find strengths, weaknesses and targetable tendencies.
Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur for the NHL single-season record with 48 wins, was close to unbeatable through Christmas and probably is the favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume the goaltending battle in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia Flyers is one-sided, not only because Holtby cooled considerably in the second half, but also because Flyers No. 1 Steve Mason is no slouch himself.
In fact, when looking deeper into more contextualized statistics such as adjusted save percentage, which factors in shot location, Mason (.9351) came out ahead of Holtby (.9281), at least at even strength.
POSITIONING: Holtby often is described as an athletic goaltender, but he will be the first to say his record-setting season and improvements during the past two seasons can be attributed to relying on those natural gifts less often. His positioning is more contained and his movements more controlled since Mitch Korn arrived as the Capitals goaltending coach. That has led to him being more consistent and reaching less to make saves with his arms, and making it harder for shooters to find exploitable tendencies.
Mason's improvements since arriving in Philadelphia late in 2012-13 started with a simplification of his positioning that began with then-goaltending coach Jeff Reese moving him back to the goal line and removing some of the decision-making on depth that led to inconsistencies earlier in his career. Mason takes more ice now but has established better balance, works predominantly inside-out to stay establish the angle first, and no longer seems to get caught as wildly out of position as earlier in his career.
Advantage: Because he is (perhaps surprisingly) the more contained of the two, Holtby
Video: WSH@STL: Holtby gloves Fabbri's shot from blue line
BLOCK/REACT THRESHOLD: Mason scrambles as well as anyone in the League, using a long reach with his legs and arms to battle for pucks when he has to throw technique out the window and just compete. He uses good hands and his size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) to take away the top of the net. But when you closely compare how he reacts off a shot release, Mason tends to react a little more often from his knees, pushing to the ice and opening his torso, which can create slight delays on his save execution and post-save recovery.
Holtby, who has narrowed his stance during the past few seasons, reacts more from his skates, patiently waiting for the release before pushing his body into shots rather than pushing straight down to the ice before reacting. This can leave him prone to against-the-grain tips and deflections that catch him moving the wrong way, especially when he does drop his hands and pulls up his torso in more of a blocking mode. That delays his ability to establish a push edge with his skates to go back the other way.
Advantage: It's slight and can be turned into a disadvantage if he starts sliding too much instead of shifting, but because he reacts more by moving his body into shots, Holtby.
PUCKHANDLING: Holtby and Mason rank among the best in the NHL when it comes to their ability to make long passes and start plays out of their end, but neither handles the puck as much as you might expect given their puck skills. Holtby has used puckhandling as a way to stay engaged while facing lower shot totals since Barry Trotz arrived as coach two seasons ago, but has talked about being careful not to try and do too much with it, settling for setting up breakouts with simple plays.
Advantage: Holtby had one assist this season. That's one more than Mason, but it's still pretty even.
Video: PIT@PHI: Mason snags Mouillierat's shot from in close
POST PLAY: Both goaltenders have been exposed short-side high at times in the past because of premature commitment to the reverse-VH on sharp-angle plays above the goal line, getting beat over the shoulder when they drop their lead pad to the ice and use the backside edge to push into the post.
Mason had added an overlap technique option to his repertoire, keeping his short-side skate in front of and past the post to avoid interference and short-side exposure when he drops into the butterfly, especially on rush chances funneled closer to the goal. Holtby has improved his mobility out of reverse-VH on the blocker side and appears more selective when using it, saving it for when pucks are below the goal line, and not staying in it too long once the play is above the goal line.
Advantage: There isn't much, but because he also seals the ice better in a wider butterfly, Mason.
SCORING TRENDS: Holtby thinks the game at a high level, and there were times when his dip during the past two months was the result of anticipating plays so well he got ahead of them, giving shooters time to adjust their initial intent. Combining deception on the release with well-timed traffic that forces him to pick a side because he looks around, not over, screens, is one way to try and get him moving the wrong way and turn Holtby's tendency to push into shots into a weakness rather than a strength. And as well as he re-adjusts and stays over his knees on recoveries during scrambles rather than reaching, Holtby still wears his pads really tight, which leaves a gap under them during these short movements.
Mason's added depth includes getting beyond his posts wide on outside plays below the faceoff circles, a tendency that adds time to his movements back into the middle or across his crease on long, lateral plays. That may help explain an .829 penalty-kill save percentage that ranked last among the 42 goalies to play at least 30 games this season. It also can leave him vulnerable to rebounds off the far pad on the rush.
Advantage: Because of Mason's exposure shorthanded this season, Holtby.