Mason stones Rangers in stellar Game 4 return


By David Strehle (@DStrehleTFP)

With having played only the final seven minutes of Game 3 during the postseason due to injury, it was tough to tell if Philadelphia Flyers netminder Steve Mason would be up to the challenge in his first start of the series Friday night in Game 4.

After all, this was a crucial game in the overall scheme of things for Philadelphia, as it was pretty much an acknowledged must-win situation. A loss and the Flyers would head back to Madison Square Garden staring directly down the barrel of a 3-1 deficit, and having to win three straight, including two in what has been a veritable house of horrors for the Orange-an-Black.

Mason answered any and all questions about his health — and rather emphatically — as he shook off any cobwebs that may have lingered since being bowled over in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, and slammed the door shut on the New York Rangers with a spectacular 37-save performance in a 2-1 triumph.

The series is now even at 2-2 as the scene shifts back to the Big Apple for a pivotal Game 5 at noon on Sunday.

It was Mason’s first-ever postseason victory, having lost his previous four playoff decisions during his rookie year with the Columbus Blue Jackets in a sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings.

Though he got into the closing minutes of Tuesday night’s loss just to get some game work to ready him for Game 4, Mason enjoyed every minute of Friday’s raucous environment on home ice.

“It was a lot of fun to get back out there in this atmosphere at the Wells Fargo Center,” Mason said after the victory. “It’s second to none in my opinion. Watching it on TV prior to getting to this organization and now that I actually get to play in front of that kind of crowd, it’s hard to describe. It’s a lot of fun.”

Friday night’s contest didn’t start so well, though, as the Flyers once again fell behind early. Dominic Moore, who had just jumped out of the penalty box after the Rangers killed off his hooking minor, took a Brian Boyle pass and followed up his own rebound after Mason made the initial save. Moore circled around the back of the net and was able to barely beat the Philadelphia goaltender’s left pad to the far post with a wraparound goal just 4:38 after the opening faceoff to give the Blue Shirts the 1-0 lead.

Though New York carried play and continued getting numerous quality chances, Mason actually seemed to feed off of the workload and got stronger as the game progressed.

“Just to be able to get into the game right off the bat,” Mason said of the benefit of seeing a lot of shots early on. “I hadn’t played in almost two weeks, so it was good to feel the puck right away, make some saves, gain a little bit of confidence and carry that forward through the rest of the game.”

The Rangers outshot Philadelphia 16-6 in the first period, and Mason’s head coach said it was a good thing he was ready for the onslaught.

“He played very well,” said Craig Berube. “He looked very confident right from the get go, and he had to be in the first. He did a great job.”

Wayne Simmonds said he recognized his goaltender was ready even before the game began.

“‘Mase’ has got his little ritual, he’s got his headphones in and he’s always looking forward to the game,” the winger said. “I think right off the start he made some real big saves for us, which allowed us to come back and tie the game up. He’s been great for us all year long. He’s very strong mentally, and I think he showed that tonight.””

While Mason kept his club in the game at one end, his teammates began to chip away at Henrik Lundqvist in the New York zone.

Rookie Jason Akeson, one of the best Philly skaters in the series thus far, would have a direct impact on both Flyers’ goals.

Midway through the opening stanza, the youngster skated down the left wing side and spotted linemate Matt Read streaking along the right. Akeson shot wide left of the cage, banking the puck to the opposite side where Read was waiting and snapped a quick who past Lundqvist to the short side and tie it at 1-apiece.

“It’d be a better story for you guys tonight to tell you I practice that all day in practice, but no,” admitted Akeson. “It’s just a play that happened, and luckily (Read) put it home.”

The play totally surprised Lundqvist, who couldn’t recover and get across in time to stop Read.

“I didn’t expect it to come out that fast, so it was hard for me to get across,” King Henrik said. “Your reaction is to kind of turn to your right first, and and then you realize it’s coming out on your left side.”

The goal appeared to put the Flyers on a more even keel, even though the shot totals still heavily favored the visitors.

Moore was nabbed for a questionable cross-checking penalty on Claude Giroux 5:58 into the second period, and Akeson would again make his presence felt. New York appeared as if they would clear the zone on a broken play along the left wing wall, but Akseon used his body to shield the puck and kicked it back to the point to defenseman Mark Streit. The defenseman whipped a quick cross-ice pass to Brayden Schenn in the high slot, and the centerman skated up the middle as if he were about to unleash a slapshot.

Schenn instead sent a low, hard pass in the direction of Jake Voracek, who was cutting towards the Rangers’ net, and deflected the perfect feed over Lundqvist’s right shoulder and under the cross bar for what would prove to be the game-winning goal.

“I tried to get in on the power play and I got tripped there, by (Anton) Stralman, I think,” Voracek recounted. “I got back up and ‘Schenner’ made a good, heads up play. I just tried to tip it high, so good goal.”

Though he didn’t register an assist on the play, Akeson’s literal kick start on the game-winner was a huge play.

“He’s a good play maker and he’s got good composure with the puck,” Berube said. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s strong on the puck. He’s got a heavy stick. I like his play-making ability, and his composure with the puck.”

It’s a huge contribution for a Flyers’ team that has struggled to score goals, especially with the attention being paid to Giroux and shutting down the club’s top line.

“He’s smart with the puck,” Giroux said of Akeson. “He makes plays sometimes, and everybody on the bench looks at each other and they’re like ‘Where did that come from?’ He’s really talented.”

The Voracek marker would give Mason all the offense he would need, as he made the lead hold up the rest of the way. At the time of that goal, the shots on goal were 25-11 in favor of the Rangers.

In his first start in a Philly postseason contest, the goalkeeper was sharp and in midseason form. He made some acrobatic stops, perhaps the best being a diving save to thwart Ryan McDonagh in the closing seconds of the second period.

“It was kind of a tough play,” Mason recalled. “I was trying to be patient and he was coming up slow. I bit early, he made a move to the middle, and I was just able to reach back and get it with the paddle of the stick. It was a big save.”

“(Mason) had a couple huge stops – the McDonagh stop in the second period was huge,” Voracek pointed out. “He was our best player today, and it was exactly what we needed. A game like that, and now we go into their building 2-2.”

Rangers’ center Brad Richards said that was a big play, and Mason was the difference.

“He played big and made some big saves,” Richards said. “We had two – Mac (McDonagh) pretty much looked like an open net, he reached back with his paddle. It could be 2-2. There were some other big ones. He played well, you have to give him credit.”

Mason also aided the penalty-killing unit, as his adept puck-handling skills were on full display for much of the night. He cleared the zone several times, and sent the Flyers away on a shorthanded rush with a long stretch pass.

As a matter of fact, the special teams play was a big part of Philadelphia’s success on the evening. The power play finished 1-2, and the Philly penalty killing unit was a perfect 4-4.

After starting out the series with three tallies in their first eight power play opportunities, the Rangers have now been held without a goal in their last 12 consecutive man advantage opportunities.

But the story of the night was Mason’s triumphant return to the Philly net, and how his hard work in preparation of coming back has paid off in a big way.

“I’ve been practicing a lot just with goaltender-specific things, and I think that really carried through to today’s game,” Mason said following the win. “We had a lot of stuff behind the net and a lot of back door plays, and that’s stuff that (goaltender coach Jeff Reese) and I have been working on with my post work. Making sure you’re closing up tight when they are behind the net. That work paid off tonight.”

What the Flyers are saying as they head back to New York City, tied 2-2

Mason: “I think if we’re able to go in there and have the kind of compete that the guys have shown time in and time out this season, I think it’s going to bode well for us. It’s not an easy place to go and play, but I think the guys are well prepared to go in there with our best effort. I think if we have that, we’ll be okay.”

Giroux: “When we keep playing our game and we don’t try to do too much, I think that’s when we play our best. Tonight was an example. We worked hard and made sure that we were responsible. We played as a team. We’ve got to keep going like that.”

Voracek: “Obviously it’s huge. We hadn’t won there before in a while. If we’re going to play the same way we did in Game 2 and be patient for 60 minutes, I’m sure we can win again.”

Simmonds: “We’ve just got to make sure we’re focused. One game at a time, I think that’s the way it’s going to be. We won tonight, and we’ve got to forget about it. You’ve got to have short memories, and make sure we’re preparing for the right way for the next game.”

Giroux ‘guarantee’

The captain downplayed the fact that he all but guaranteed a Game 4 victory following the Flyers’ game 3 loss. “I just said if we play our game, we were going to be successful, Giroux humbly said in his post-game interview. “We’ve got to stick to how we’re playing and battling. They have a lot of good players on their side and we’re aware of that. We’ve just got to keep working hard.”

Giroux has a habit of predicting good fortune for his club — as he said the Flyers would qualify for the postseason after a 1-7 start — so much so, that CSN’s John Boruk could be heard beginning his one-on-one on-camera interview in the locker room with Giroux “So, if I want to know something that’s going to happen in my life, could you tell me?”

Grossmann injured

Nick Grossmann lost an edge during the second period and went awkwardly into the side boards. His right skate appeared to catch along the boards, snapping his right knee underneath him. The defensive defenseman remained on the ice for a few moments, then needed help to get off the ice surface as he went directly to the locker room.

The Flyers announced just prior to the commencement of the third period that Grossmann suffered a lower-body injury, and would not return.

“Grossmann,” Berube said after the game, “I do not have an update right now.”

Without any information as to the extent of Grossmann’s ailment, there could be another of the Philadelphia defenders who get the call for Game 5 in N.Y.C.

Erik Gustafsson could provide mobility and puck-moving capabilities, while Hal Gill would fill some of the physicality lost should Grossmann miss any extended time.

Berube doesn’t have a tremendous amount of time with which to contemplate his options, as the turnaround to Sunday’s noon start is right around the corner, and the final three contests (if Game 7 ends up being necessary) are scheduled to be played in a four-day span.

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