For goalies, competition is healthy
This time a year ago, Steve Mason was starting what would be a two-game absence, the result of a medical issue with his family that had clearly affected him in a 7-1 loss to Florida in that season’s second game.
Mason returned and resumed his starting goaltender’s status with the Flyers, but could have lost it a number of times during a 2015-16 season in which free agent backup signee Michal Neuvirth for the most part played very well, but fell victim to what has so often hindered him in his career, injuries.
Neuvirth’s first two starts last season for his new team were shutout victories.
Neuvirth’s last three starts for the Flyers last season were every bit as good, giving up just two goals over three playoff games against the Washington Capitals, the last being a 1-0 heartbreaker that eliminated a Flyers team that would average one goal per game in the series.
In those last three Neuvirth starts, however, Neuvirth again looked every bit the part of starting goalie. So now the Flyers return to Wells Fargo Center Thursday night for their first meaningful game since that Game 6 loss to the Capitals.
In net ... is anybody’s guess.
Prior to the three-game road trip that started this season, Neuvirth was named the first game’s starter. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, since Neuvirth had finished last season so impressively, and really had a better overall preseason than Mason did.
Of course, there is that little contract difference, with Mason’s cap hit at $4.1 million to Neuvirth’s $1.625M. Both are in the final year of their deals, which only heightens their personal competition.
But contract details aside, there doesn’t seem to be a vast difference these days in the way Neuvirth and Mason are viewed by head coach Dave Hakstol.
While he named Neuvirth his starter for that opener in Los Angeles Friday night, which would be won by the Flyers, Hakstol almost simultaneously named Mason the starter for the second game of the season, Saturday in Arizona. Mason lost that one in overtime. Then came the trip finale in Chicago, with Neuvirth blown out by four quick Blackhawks goals and replaced by Mason. He was in net when the Flyers tied the game in the third period ... then allowed two goals that paved the way for the Hawks’ 7-4 victory.
So it’s only been three so-so road games, but as far as the goaltending is concerned, this Flyers home opener might as well be the first game of the season. Consider these goalies even again. Now ponder the future.
Because of his salary number, and with prospect Anthony Stolarz still waiting in the wings, consider Mason’s long-term future with the club to be in some doubt. That is ... if Neuvirth can show he can actually stay healthy for a long stretch of games.
In his first full season in the NHL for Washington, coming off back-toback Calder Cup championships with Hershey, Neuvirth was appointed as a young starter and had a decent campaign for 201011, albeit only playing 48 games. Neuvirth’s perceived lack of durability may have helped Tomas Vokoun win the starting goalie job the next season, then Braden Holtby was elevated the following year, all while Neuvirth was experiencing the odd injury.
He was a seldom used backup behind Holtby for a couple of years, then couldn’t stick with either the Sabres or Islanders before signing that two-year free agency deal to be a Flyers backup in 2015.
Neuvirth promptly hurt his knee in the preseason, and had respective upper body setbacks in late October and mid-November. He took an injured Mason’s place and was a solid tarter in late January, only to incur a lower body injury. Healthy again in late February, Neuvirth was threatening to assume more of a starting role for the stretch. But a torn meniscus in his knee knocked him out of action March 20.
Neuvirth didn’t return until April 10, and by that time Mason was the appointed playoff starter. But the Capitals won the first three games of the series, with Mason blowing up in a 6-1 debacle in Game 3 at Wells Fargo Center.
With nothing to lose, Dave Hakstol finally went to Neuvirth to start Game 4, and he responded with magnificent play that is still playing into the decision-making process for these goalies.
Perhaps that rivalry will help motivate both of them this season.
Health will probably be a bigger factor in how it all turns out, though.
Chicago Blackhawks forward Artem Anisimov scores past Flyers goalie Steve Mason on Tuesday.