Earlier this year, when there was still ample opportunity for the Flyers to overcome their poor start to the 2013 season, the team faced a brutal six-game road trip. Coming off a home win against Carolina on a Saturday afternoon, the trip kicked off with back-to-back games in Toronto and Winnipeg.
Three games in three far-apart cities in less than 96 hours. That's a tough task for any team in the NHL. During that stretch, the Flyers were done in by an awful second period in Toronto in what turned into a 5-2 loss. But they bounced back in Winnipeg for a one-goal (3-2) win. All in all, getting four of six points from the three games in four days was not a bad result.
Fast forward two months. The Flyers' ongoing struggles have them on the outer edge of the playoff bubble, and they need EVERY possible point.
Over the last four days, the club faced the very same three-city gauntlet (Philadelphia to Toronto to Winnipeg) in the same span of hours. The only difference schedule wise was that the back-to-back games were in Philly and Toronto with one day off before the game in Winnipeg.
The game outcomes were similar, except the outcomes in Toronto and Winnipeg were reversed. The Flyers won at home, managed a one-plus-an-empty-netter win in Toronto and were done in by an awful second period in Winnipeg after a strong first period, suffering a three-goal margin of defeat in the end.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, the team had already left itself virtually no margin for error. Four of six points in a three-game stretch is not good enough at this point if the 17-18-3 Flyers are to find a way to squeak into the postseason. Yesterday's loss, couple with wins by most of the teams the Flyers are competing with in the playoff chase, was a damaging one to their hopes.
The Flyers played a strong two-way first period yesterday, controlling the majority of the play against the struggling Jets during the opening 20 minutes. The only goal Philly mustered was a deflection goal by Ruslan Fedotenko (who has three goals and five points in the last five games) on a shot by Kent Huskins.
The skinny 1-0 lead held until shortly past the midway mark of regulation. The Flyers' legs seemed to get heavy in the middle stanza and their puck support and energy dropped off a cliff. The inevitable happened as Winnipeg continued to apply pressure and Philly wilts. The walls caved in rapidly on the Flyers.
A harbinger of the collapse to come was a nasty cut suffered by Luke Schenn when he got hit in the head with a fluttering shot. The puck struck him on the helmet or the top corner of his visor, and left him with a badly bleeding cut over his right eye (but the results could have been much worse if not for the helmet and face shield). He missed seven-plus minutes of play while going off for stitches.
Over a span of barely two minutes, the Jets turned their 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead. In the final minute of the period, a bad pinch by Erik Gustafsson led to an outnumbered counter-attack and another goal for Winnipeg to make it a 4-1 game.
Of the four goals allowed by a beleaguered Ilya Bryzgalov, two were potentially stoppable (although none were outright "soft") but the biggest culprit was the scrambly, disorganized defensive coverages.
Steve Mason came in for mop-up duty in the third period. He stopped all nine shots fired his way. At the other end of the ice, the Flyers had a few chances to cut into the deficit -- including a pair of point-blank scoring opportunities for Claude Giroux -- but they were unable to finish. Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec finished with 30 saves.
The Flyers return to action on Tuesday when they visit Long Island to take on the Islanders.
It will be interesting to see how much playing time Steve Mason gets over the final 10 games of the 2013 season. Ilya Bryzgalov has been a workhorse, but the team may want to see what Mason can do if given the chance to start a few games.
Prediction: If Mason starts on Long Island on Tuesday and if he plays well in a win, there will be an instant goaltending controversy. Such is life for a goaltender in the high-pressure Philadelphia market.
My own view is that is that may not be a bad idea to give Mason four or five of the remaining games. On the small chance the team finds a way to get into the playoffs, incumbent starter Bryzgalov would start in the postseason (although Peter Laviolette has certainly been known to change directions suddenly in the playoffs).
Ever since his Calder Trophy winning rookie season of 2008-09, Mason has dealt with lofty expectations and disappointing results. Part of it was due to playing on mediocre-to-poor Columbus Blue Jackets teams but part of it was his own doing.
Mason has had issues with soft goals, bad rebounds and lack of resiliency after a mistake. Although he is exceptionally mobile for a big goalie (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), there were times in Columbus where he mechanics and positioning got so out of whack that he gave himself no chance to make saves.
When he was locked in, though, he showed flashes of the form that had many calling him a burgeoning franchise goaltender after his stellar rookie year. There is no denying the right-catching netminder's natural athleticism or his still-considerable potential. Yesterday, he showed off some mighty impressive puckhandling ability in particular.
Following up on success and working through adversity has been the main issue for Mason.
Goaltenders tend to have the longest learning curve of any position at the pro level. At age 24, there are many future long-term NHL starting goalies who are still considered prospects, as they are either still trying to work their way up from the American Hockey League or are newly arrived from Europe. In Mason's case, the learning curve has taken place at the top level because he cracked the NHL. Perhaps it should have been expected that he'd regress once the league had a book on him.
While in Columbus, Mason developed a bit of a reputation as a player with a questionable work ethic. How much of that was a lack of maturity and how much was due to a lack of communication/chemistry with his Blue Jackets coaches is impossible for outsiders to determine. I suspect, however, that it was a little bit of both.
I'll also add that there have been plenty of young players whose coachability, preparation and/or got negatively labeled while they were young, and who turned things around dramatically. Sometimes it takes a long time to see the finished product.
The ultimately example: Look up in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center. A certain Hall of Fame goaltender named Bernie Parent was deemed lazy and too unfocused by his original team (Boston) and did not achieve his full potential until many years down the road after being tutored in Toronto by Jacques Plante and returning to the Flyers for a second stint. Parent, in fact, did not hit his prime until age 28 (his ninth season in pro hockey).
Of course, Mason has a lot of work to do before he can even be trusted again as an NHL starting goaltender. Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese is eager to work with him, and Mason seems to genuinely welcome the opportunity he's received for a fresh start. But the proof will be in his performance.
Has anyone else been pleasantly surprised by what they've seen of Kent Huskins in his four games as a Flyer? The veteran defenseman has shown more mobility than I thought he would, and he's made smart, safe plays both with and without the puck. The 33-year-old blueliner has looked like a solid third-pairing option.
Despite going minus-three in yesterday's game, Oliver Lauridsen has generally done a good job as an injury fill-in. He is physical, willing to block shots and does not seem intimidated playing against the best players in the world. I have to be honest, though: I am worried about a drop-off in the big Dane's effectiveness as the league gets a scouting report on him.
Having seen many of his AHL games during the lockout (via webcasts) and all of his NHL games to date, I have noticed a particular flaw in his defensive game. Lauridsen is frequently prone to over-committing himself on his coverages. He instinctively goes at the puck-carrier without assessing if there's a more dangerous player away from the puck. It has already contributed to a couple opposition goals during his NHL stint with the Flyers, where scoring chances develop even faster than at the American League level.
But one thing is for certain with the hard-working Lauridsen. He will put in the time to continue to try and improve his game to become a viable long-term option for an NHL top six. He's an exponentially better pro defenseman in April 2013 than he was in October 2011, and that's very much to his credit.
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