For goalies, com­pe­ti­tion is healthy

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Rob Par­ent Colum­nist

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.

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Chicago Black­hawks for­ward Artem Anisi­mov scores past Fly­ers goalie Steve Ma­son on Tues­day.

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