WASHINGTON — Steve Mason sat on the ground in a quiet, dimly lit hallway of the Verizon Center about 80 minutes before puck drop Sunday.
He whipped a rubber ball against the opposite wall, reflexively catching each return before rapidly firing the next toss.
The goaltender, beleaguered and beaten of late, was all alone, intensely focused and preparing for the Capitals, who had just walloped the Blackhawks, 6-0, two days prior.
But in the grand scheme, Mason was readying for one final start before his team’s five-day bye week, an opportunity to send himself off with a jolt of confidence and refreshed frame of mind.
For two stanzas against the NHL’s hottest club and current leader, he had done that.
“The first two periods, we played excellent road periods,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Didn’t give up much.”
Then came the third period: four goals in five minutes and an early shower for Mason, as the Flyers were all but finished in a 5-0 drubbing (see game story).
Mason, in dire need of something to build on, had crumbled along with his defense. Any good vibes gained were lost, far and deep away, within a flash.
First, it was Marcus Johansson’s blind pass — which didn’t exactly fool Mason — to Justin Williams, who went top shelf for a 2-0 Washington lead just 1:36 into the final frame.
Less than two minutes later, a misplay by Ivan Provorov resulted in a 3-on-2 rush finished off beautifully by a deceptive feed from Alex Ovechkin to Matt Niskanen.
The latter then struck again on a slap shot Mason read clearly but failed to fully glove.
And Williams, after starting it all, provided the punctuation exactly five minutes from his first tally.
In the dressing room postgame, Mason tried to find an answer for the tornado that swept through the third period and wrecked the Flyers into the break an utter mess.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “A complete 180. It’s not how we wanted to come out in the third. We’ve got to be a good third-period team. It wasn’t good.”
Mason recognizes he hasn’t been good, going south simultaneously with the Flyers since the 10-game winning streak — which now seems so long ago (see 10 observations). The 28-year old, in the final year of a three-year contract, is 0-6-2 with a 4.07 goals-against average in his past eight games. He has not recorded a win since Dec. 21 and made just 12 saves on 17 shots against the Capitals following a yanking from his previous outing, as well.
Mason, likely deflated at the moment of the question, stayed positive when asked for his confidence level.
“It’s definitely a tough stretch right now,” Mason said. “Not proud of the way things are going — kind of have to step back here and get away for a few days, which will be good I think at this point in time. Just come back and reset.”
That is what the Flyers will have to do, having permitted a league-most 144 goals. As they’ve lost 11 of their last 14, Mason obviously isn’t the only one searching for answers.
“Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase and [Michal Neuvirth]. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. “In the end, it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”
Which has been often.
“It’s definitely not good,” Mason said. “Since the start of the New Year, it hasn’t been a good start for us. We’re struggling to find that consistency. I think everybody just has to come back from this four-day break here with a fresh mindset, fresh outlook and put this behind us.”
If anyone is welcoming the bye week, it’s likely Mason with open arms.