As Flyers' season winds down, big questions loom about Steve Mason

As Flyers' season winds down, big questions loom about Steve Mason

Perhaps the biggest issue Flyers general manager Ron Hextall must address this offseason is what to do about his goaltending.

The fact that he re-signed Michal Neuvirth over Steve Mason doesn't mean diddly.

The oft-injured Neuvirth came at a bargain price. He can be dangled in the expansion draft so the club doesn't have to expose young prospect Anthony Stolarz.

The more intriguing question is what to do with Mason, who earned $4.1 million this season, but like Neuvirth didn't live up to expectations.

Remember, there is a growing stockpile of goalies in the Flyers' system.

In this final week of the season, Mason's overall numbers -- 2.67 goals-against average and .908 save percentage -- don't get you into the playoffs, even with 25 wins. His GAA and save percentage are his poorest since 2011-12 with Columbus (3.39, .894).

Yet, if you look into his last 16 games, Mason is 9-5-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .933 save percentage on a terribly inconsistent club that has underachieved. Those numbers are very good, especially viewed in that light.

Now here's the rub: You can make a case that Mason has been able to do that because the Flyers were pretty much out of the wild-card race -- realistically, not mathematically -- once March began, and the pressure wasn't as great.

A number of players have said that over the last three weeks, as it became clearer the uphill battle was out of their own hands. It also became easier to relax and just go out and play and leave things to fate.

Players universally play better in any sport when pressure is removed.

There are some other things to consider. During his five seasons with the Flyers, Mason has given pause more than once as to whether he has the mental fortitude to overcome the bad. He's been healthy this year and yet his numbers have been subpar.

In trying to ascertain whether to re-sign him -- at a discounted price -- Hextall has to ask himself which goalie is he getting?

Is it Mason from 2013-14, who won 33 games with a 2.50 GAA and .917 save percentage and had excellent numbers in the postseason (1.97, .939) despite losing?

Or is it the Mason of the last two years, who has been inconsistent, having a terrible playoff series (4.09, .852) against Washington last spring?

One more thing: During his tenure here, Mason has been very vocal, very critical, often very honest in his postgame appraisal of the Flyers. That doesn't sit well with a number of players in the dressing room.

Here's a blunt, yet accurate assessment of the Flyers from Mason on Tuesday morning in New Jersey:

"This is a tough week to be a part of right now," he said of playing out the schedule. "I think we realize we did ourselves in with our own play. There's nothing more to it than we weren't consistent enough throughout the year to be a playoff hockey team this year.

"Looking back, it's also frustrating because we've seen some glimpses of a real solid hockey team. But in order to be a solid hockey team, you need to have the consistency and that's something that we clearly lacked and it put us in a position where we're playing out the last three games knowing we're not gonna be part of the postseason.

"Moving forward here, I think everybody, at the end of the year, just has to take a look in the mirror and hold themselves accountable and understand that as a whole and as individuals we've got to be better."

Other players have said that in the past two weeks. Yet, that's the kind of honesty you get from Mason every game.

His criticism of the Flyers for their lack of effort in a losing performance at Winnipeg last month had players grumbling. They didn't appreciate what he said, nor the timing of when he said it.

Hextall realizes some of the players don't care for Mason's candidness. Generations of hockey players believe that's the job of the captain and select skaters -- not the goaltender.

Hextall has to ask himself two questions as it pertains to Mason:

1. Does he deserve to return?

2. If so, is he a goaltender the Flyers will play for? Or is this just a goaltender the Flyers will play in front of?

Loose pucks
The Flyers sent defenseman Sam Morin and forward Colin McDonald back to the Phantoms now that their back-to-back games are done and they don't play again until this weekend. Hextall has said all along he wants the Phantoms' roster complete for the AHL playoffs. Both these players could be recalled, but if the Flyers' injury situation turns around by the weekend, that won't be necessary.

Capitals reclaim sole possession of Metro lead

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Capitals reclaim sole possession of Metro lead

WASHINGTON — T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Matt Niskanen scored as the Washington Capitals swept a home-and-home set against the skidding New York Islanders with a 6-3 win on Friday night.

Alex Chiasson had a goal and two assists for the Capitals, who hammered the Islanders 7-3 in New York on Thursday. Jakub Vrana's goal gave Washington a 5-1 lead with 9:04 remaining. Lars Eller added an empty-netter, and Braden Holtby made 22 saves.

Washington broke a tie with the idle Pittsburgh Penguins for sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals' four-game winning streak is their longest since taking five in a row from Dec. 28 to Jan. 9.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington's second-leading scorer, left in the second period and did not return after sustaining an upper-body injury, according to the team.

Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson and John Tavares scored for the Islanders, who have lost 10 of 11 (see full recap).

Hoffman lifts Senators over Stars in OT
OTTAWA, Ontario — Mike Hoffman scored at 3:26 of overtime and the Ottawa Senators beat the Dallas Stars 3-2 on Friday night to win their third game in a row for just the second time this season.

Ottawa won on home ice for the first time since Feb. 17.

Marian Gaborik and Matt Duchene also scored for the Senators (26-33-11), and Craig Anderson made 23 saves.

Tyler Seguin and Tyler Pitlick had the goals for the Stars (38-26-8). Ben Bishop, who stopped 22 shots, made his first start since missing five games with a knee injury sustained March 5 against the Senators. Bishop has a 9-0-4 career record against Ottawa.

Dallas has lost four straight, its longest skid of the season (see full recap).

Predators rally past Coyotes
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Nashville Predators keep rolling toward the best regular season in franchise history.

Kevin Fiala and Kyle Turris each had a goal and assist in the third period, leading Nashville to a 3-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night. Ryan Ellis also scored to help the Western Conference-leading Predators get their 21st road win of the season and improve to 12-0-1 in their last 13 games overall. Pekka Rinne finished with 32 saves.

Nashville, which reached the Stanley Cup Final a year ago after earning the second wild card in the West, has 102 points through 70 games, and needs nine more in its final 12 games to set a new franchise record (see full recap).

Alex Lyon can save the Flyers' season

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Alex Lyon can save the Flyers' season

Lost amid the Flyers’ 5-3 defeat at the hands Blue Jackets on Thursday was yet another stellar relief appearance in goal from Alex Lyon.

Lyon was sensational after replacing Petr Mrazek between the pipes early in the second period, stopping all 18 shots that came his way. Flyers coach Dave Hakstol praised the rookie netminder for giving his team an opportunity to come from behind.

“He’s a battler, and that’s what we asked from him last night going into that situation,” Hakstol said following Friday’s practice.

“You need to have a mindset of going in there and absolutely slamming the door to give your team a chance to win. In order to do that, you have to have a real battling mentality, and I thought he had that right from when he stepped in the net.”

Success in a sort of stopper role has become increasingly commonplace for Lyon since joining the Flyers.

Lyon came off the bench to make five saves during the final eight minutes of a 5-3 loss to the Capitals in his January debut. The 25-year-old later earned his first NHL win against the Rangers in February, blocking 25 of 26 shots over the second and third periods to help procure a 7-4 victory.

His play has been on the rise ever since. Lyon appears to be improving with experience, posting a 2-1-0 record with a .939 save percentage in his last four games.

“I don’t know if I’d say confidence so much as comfortability,” Lyon said of his growth. “I think I always had the confidence in myself that I could do it. It’s just you have to get comfortable enough to kind of believe that.”

He shined as a substitute goaltender all along. Including his performance against the Blue Jackets, Lyon has amassed a .980 save percentage in three relief appearances — a number emblematic of his season.

Lyon began 2017-18 as the emergency-goalie-in-waiting at Lehigh Valley. He earned the call-up to the Flyers’ main roster after the injury to Brian Elliott, then saw an uptick in ice time due to Michal Neuvirth’s subsequent maladies.

The club traded for Petr Mrazek after Neuvirth went down, but Lyon still finds himself in the mix. He’s expected to start against the Hurricanes on Saturday — a pivotal contest for the Flyers’ bid to make the playoffs.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Lyon said. “This is what you think about when you’re a little kid.

“It’s not quite the same, but down in Allentown we were in a pretty hot playoff race last year and always at the top of the standings, so I’m going to draw on my past experiences.”

Elliott returned to the ice this week and could be back in uniform soon, at which time Lyon will be sent back to the minor leagues. But if the Flyers do manage to reach the postseason, his fill-in contributions will have played a big part.

Perhaps Lyon will even warrant a closer look for a full-time spot on the Flyers’ roster next season.