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December 06, 2016

November loss to Senators may have turned Flyers' season around

Almost a month ago, it appeared the Flyers season could be derailed by Thanksgiving, and the up-and-down career of goalie Steve Mason would take another dip.

Late in that Nov. 15 game, with the Flyers holding onto a 3-2 lead, Ottawa Senators forward Kyle Turris wheeled behind the net. Mason was snug against his left post, but could not push off across the crease.

The result was a deflating tying goal as Turris tucked the puck into what was basically an open side of the net. The game went into overtime, and the night was lost when Ottawa defenseman Eric Karlsson scored in the shootout.

After the game, Mason, who had been struggling, decided he wouldn’t address the situation. For the past week, he had been answering all the questions with a basic response that he had to play better. He was not good enough, he said, and he had let everybody down – including himself.

But with Michal Neuvirth out with injury, it was important that Mason got it figured out … and quickly.

As it turns out, that night might have been the one that turned the seasons of both Mason and the Flyers around.

In the nine games following that loss, Mason went 6-2-1 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. He took the banner of NHL Player of the Week into Tuesday night’s game at the Wells Fargo Center against the Florida Panthers.

In stark terms, Mason had one of those look-in-the-mirror moments. It was especially important with Neuvirth down, and part of the equation is that Mason didn’t have to deal with questions about who was the Flyers’ No. 1 goalie.

The Flyers’ backup goalie is temporarily untested prospect Anthony Stolarz, who has had only one start over nine games and is hardly a threat to take over the top level on the depth chart.

Eventually, Neuvirth will be back and the best case scenario for Mason would be that he continues to play so well that it is difficult for Neuvirth to get even a few starts, let alone take over the starting job.

For sure, Mason has been a big part of the Flyers’ surge into Tuesday night’s game against Florida, but it has been a lot more than just the goaltending.

Coach Dave Hakstol has sent a few well-timed messages to the locker room, benching forward Michael Raffl, and then defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Michael Del Zotto.

There has also been the continued shuffling of forward Brayden Schenn, who has been up and down the depth chart, finally landing between Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds.

In each case, it appeared the message was clear and the response almost immediate. It was especially true with Gostisbehere who was as shocked as the fan base at being scratched but came back to the lineup with one of his best games of the season.

Even with all systems recently on go, even with Voracek and Giroux cranking along, Konecny providing offense and emotion, and Simmonds playing like an All-Star, the Flyers don’t have much room for error.

Up front, the Flyers need Schenn to be productive to spur some offense during five-on-five play. The team lived on its power play through the first couple of months, with captain Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek carrying the offense.

Incredibly, the defense has provided a bushel full of offense as Gostisbehere and Del Zotto are more than capable of darting full speed into the offensive zone. The risk/reward of that style of play has shown up as you might expect – the Flyers score a lot of goals, but there have been too many nights that they allow an alarming number of two-on-ones or three-on-twos.

Lately, the defense has done a better job and has become especially reliant on rookie Ivan Provorov. The 19-year old, who has overcome a couple of early-season yips, has turned into a player that can be counted on in any situation.

Provorov pumped in a couple of goals last Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks. The first was a slap shot, and the second a wrist shot toward a screened goalie. In each instance, he read the situation and elected the best approach.

Defensively, he has cleaned up his early-season temptation to wheel back into his own zone and re-start the breakout. He has learned to respect the overall speed of the NHL and make the simple play when under stress from a forechecker.

Even with all systems recently on go, even with Voracek and Giroux cranking along, Konecny providing offense and emotion, and Simmonds playing like an All-Star, the Flyers don’t have much room for error.

Look around the East and you will see that the Columbus Blue Jackets are exceeding all expectations, the New York Rangers are revived with rookie Jimmy Vesey and – of course – Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Further north, the Canadiens have returned to the top with goalie Carey Price, and now that super sophomore Jack Eichel is back, the Buffalo Sabres will not be easy pickings.

The Flyers are headed toward the Christmas season with every chance to stay in the playoff race, and they are in that position because Mason has been an early Santa Claus.

He just has to keep delivering.