By Sarah Kwak
PHILADELPHIA — There were just 56.5 seconds left on the clock. And the crowd that stayed at the Wells Fargo Center were on their feet. As the officials were conferring over penalties while this oddly polite series started getting nasty, the old building began bellowing, “MA-SON! MA-SON! MA-SON!”
And when the masked man in front of the Flyers' net lifted his stick, the acknowledged fans roared. “Those are the moments that send chills down your spine,” Steve Mason said after the game. “Those are the type of moments that when you’re done playing, you can look back on and say they’re pretty special.”
It was indeed a memorable moment in a memorable performance by the 25-year-old netminder who helped Philadelphia extend its series against the New York Rangers with a 5-2 win on Tuesday night. Since his return in Game 3 from an upper-body injury he suffered late in the regular season, Mason had been solid. On Tuesday night, with his team facing elimination, he was superb.
Making 34 saves on the night, so many of them spectacular, Mason reminded the world that, yes, he was once a Calder Trophy winner (with Columbus in 2009)—and deservedly so. That year, he posted the second-best GAA in the league (2.29) and collected 33 wins to help the Blue Jackets make their first playoff appearance in franchise history. They were, however, swiftly swept, and Mason’s play declined sharply thereafter. By 2011-12, his GAA bloated to 3.39, his save percentage dipped below .900, and his $2.9 million contract hung like an albatross in payroll-conscious Columbus. He was falling from dazzling youngster to cautionary tale.
Then came his second chance. In Philadelphia, of all places. A city known for eating its goalies alive—figuratively, of course. But with his 2.50 GAA and .917 save percentage this season, Mason played an integral part in the Flyers’ drastic turnaround after a 4-10-1 start and the firing of coach Peter Laviolette. On Tuesday night, he keyed the turning point in the game and maybe the series.
Mason had already flashed his glove a couple of times, once on Rangers winger Carl Hagelin early in the game, and then on defenseman Anton Stralman late in the first period. But with the Flyers holding a 2-0 lead—oh, that tenuous two-goal lead—and the Rangers on the power play, the goalie stared down Benoit Pouliot breaking in 2-on-1 with Martin St. Louis and straight out robbed him of what would have been a momentum-changing goal. It was easily the save of the game, and depending on what happens Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, it could even be the save of the series.
“The whole game, he was great,” Flyers head coach Craig Berube said. “He has to be.”
Philadelphia had no more room for error, and that now applies to both teams. If the Flyers struggled with thie execution in Game 5, then the Rangers were worse on Tuesday. New York's power play once again struggled to generate any good chances, going 0-for-5 and extending its man advantage drought to 20 straight opportunities without a goal. “We just didn’t have the poise tonight [on the power play]—no net-front,” Rangers center Brad Richards said. “It really just snowballed on us in a bad way. we tried to do things and didn’t stay in our structure.”
But even beyond their special teams woes (New York's penalty kill surrendered two Flyers goals), the Rangers were caught making uncharacteristically poor plays with the puck, and Philadelphia pounced on its chances. No Flyer benefited more from that than Wayne Simmonds, the gritty and aggressive winger who brings a new level of energy to every shift he takes. He’s a hockey player’s hockey player—more substance and physicality than glitter and flash. But make no mistake, Simmonds has finish. And he showed it three times on Tuesday night while scoring his first postseason hat trick.
Simmonds was the beneficiary of center Brayden Schenn’s hard work on the boards early in the second period when he stripped Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi off the puck and charged hard for the net. Though Schenn whiffed on the shot in close on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Simmonds was in position to whip in the Flyers’ second goal of the game -- just their seventh even-strength goal of the series.
So much has been made of the Rangers' dominance 5-on-5 and the Flyers’ clear advantage in special teams, and that played out again on Tuesday night. Philadelphia went 2-for-3 with a man-advantage, and at even strength, New York outshot the Flyers by 29-22. But a couple of subtle tweaks that Berube made to the lineup seemed to give Philadelphia more jump. The coach took winger Scott Hartnell off the top line and replaced him with Michael Raffl, whose speed complements the skill of center Claude Giroux and winger Jakub Voracek. Hartnell then joined Schenn and Simmonds on “a big, strong line,” as Berube said—one that seemed to out-battle the Rangers on 50-50 pucks all night. They created major offense, generating 11 of the team’s 29 shots on goal, and brought the passion and tenacity that this series had been sorely lacking.
So, what will carry over into Game 7? Depends on whom you ask. “That’s the best part,” Richards said. “We can move on quickly.”
Said Simmonds: “We’ve got the momentum, and now we’ve got to keep our foot on the pedal.”
Only one can be right. And only one can move on. The Flyers and Rangers will meet in Game 7 on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in New York (NBCSN, MSG, CSN-PHA, TSN, RDS1)