By Sarah Kwak
Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason returned to the crease on Friday night for his first start since April 12 after having been sidelined by the nebulous “upper-body injury.” Though the 25-year-old netminder saw 7:15 of action in Game 3 on Tuesday, this was Mason’s first real test back in the cage. And after giving up an early goal to Rangers center Dominic Moore, who took his own rebound behind the net and slipped the puck in on a wrap-around, Mason looked crisp and confident making 37 saves in his first career postseason win and showing no real signs of rust or shaky confidence as he led the Flyers to a 2-1 win in Game 4.
Mason said after the game that he was mindful of covering posts and moving athletically side-to-side, an area in which his backup Ray Emery struggled, and his diligence paid off. Moreover, the Flyers really benefitted from another facet of Mason's game. His penchant for handling the puck is a boost for Philadelphia's defense, which has had trouble getting out of its own zone. With a savvy puck-handler behind them, the Flyers can set themselves up offensively with a little more ease.
Still, on Friday night, Mason’s greatest value was in the strong saves he made to bail out his teammates. A sprawling paddle stop of New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh late in the second period kept the Rangers from heading into the intermission with a huge momentum boost, and Mason was impenetrable during the final two minutes of the game.
Here are more observations and thoughts from the game:
• On the eve of Game 4, Flyers fourth-line grinder Zac Rinaldo said what most observers of this series were thinking. About the level of physicality, the agitating winger said, “No, not even close [to what I expected]. No. I don’t know. It’s a weird series.” For two teams that are regional rivals with a long history (albeit long ago) of epic clashes, through three games the fervor has been lacking. It was turned up a bit in Game 4, though barring a bonehead play in the next couple of games, you can probably expect these proceedings to remain civil. The Rangers don’t want to get away from the team discipline that coach Alain Vigneault has preached all season. They also don’t want to get baited into giving the Flyers looks on the power play, where they’ve definitely had the advantage in the series. That Philadelphia PP struck for the third time (in 11 chances this series) during the second period on Friday when Brayden Schenn made a perfect shot-pass through the slot onto the tape of Jakub Voracek’s stick just in front of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The redirect was good for the game-winner.
• New York’s power play, after connecting on a couple of pretty goals in Game 1, is back to its old self. That is to say, exceptionally ineffective. After going 0-for-4 on Friday, the Rangers haven’t scored in their last 12 man advantages. “We didn’t get enough traffic in front of [Mason],” McDonagh lamented. Without more bodies in front of Mason, New York cannot create the second and third opportunities it needs. Though the Rangers generated five power play shots on goal, they were largely from the outside, 40 feet or beyond. “Today that was the game-breaker,” said New York's Rick Nash. “They scored on their power play, and we didn’t score on ours.” On their 4-on-3 PP to start the third, a prime scoring chance, New York mustered just one shot: a 58-foot slapper by McDonagh.
• Before the game, the Flyers floated the idea to reporters that the Rangers were embellishing penalties. (New York was called for diving twice in Game 2.) “There is lots of embellishment. I will say that,” Luke Schenn told reporters. “Guys aren’t afraid to try to draw penalties and put their team on the power play, which might take away from it a little bit. You’re not sure what exactly is going to be called and when they’re gonna go down.” Well, in Game 4, some Flyers seemed to take the classic approach of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em.” Rinaldo drew an early hooking penalty off Dominic Moore by going down as if a buzz saw were coming for his ankles, and later Flyers captain Claude Giroux drew a cross-checking penalty on Moore. Philadelphia scored on the ensuing power play.
• Philadelphia's first goal looked fluky, but it wasn’t. Rookie winger Jason Akeson sailed the puck off the end boards, and thanks to the laws of physics and geometry, it came right to the stick of a charging Matt Read. Akeson said it was a set play, something they’ve practiced. Along with raucous support from your fans, that's another benefit of playing at home. Plays like that are much more easily executed in the familiar surroundings of your home rink.
• The Flyers found a way to rein in the Rangers’ speed, which had served New York well in its two wins and during the first period on Friday night. Part of the effort was Mason’s help in moving the puck forward, but Philadelphia also upped its pressure in the neutral zone. The Flyers slowed the pace and kept the Rangers from connecting on long passes that can jump-start their speedy offense.
• Giroux remains goalless through four postseason games. Personally, I’m wondering if this old site might get a reboot. The series turns back to New York on Sunday afternoon for Game 5, all tied up at two games apiece.