Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol faces yet another challenge and crossroads as his club rests on the cusp of a surprise playoff berth.
American Hockey League All-Star and Lehigh Valley Phantoms goaltender Anthony Stolarz was recalled under emergency conditions on Sunday, after the revelation that Michal Neuvirth would be lost for at least three weeks due to an undisclosed lower-body injury.
For Stolarz, it’s his third such recall this season and bound to be the longest and most permanent. For Steve Mason, it means he’s the unquestioned starter and the guy who will have to carry the playoff-hopeful Flyers over the final 12 games in the regular season. For Hakstol, it’s time to balance prescience, performance and importance of matchup in order to give his club the most optimal chance to win.
Mason kicked off a four-game road trip with a solid 23-save performance in a 4-1 victory over the Islanders in Brooklyn. The second of back-to-back games occurs in Columbus. Then, a rest until Thursday when the Flyers head to Denver and then Glendale on Saturday to finish off the road swing.
Following this, the NHL schedule-makers stacked the deck by giving the Orange and Black eight games in 11 days. The final six contests on the slate are a veritable roulette wheel of three consecutive instances of back-to-backs.
We finally know what’s ailing Neuvirth, and that he’d only return to action fully healthy if the Flyers reach the postseason.
Stolarz HAS to get a start or two in the interim. Or does he? Let’s explore.
Ride Or Die
Mason has been the top crease performer since arriving via trade from the Blue Jackets in April of 2013. Situations like the one the Flyers face are tailor-made to prove his efficacy as an elite goaltender by any standard of performance or metric.
Given the Flyers came into Tuesday night a single point out of the final wild-card berth in the East and can’t afford to take steps backwards, Mason has to be slotted in to start in as many games as possible during this road trip and then in the final eight games thereafter. That means a spot in the visitors’ crease in Ohio’s capital to spoil the Blue Jackets’ ability to play spoiler is a given despite the nature of back-to-back plus travel involved. Mason came through with a career-best night of 51 saves, only to be deserted by his teammates in the final minutes of regulation in a 3-2 shootout loss.
If the nuclear scenario happens, best to have Mason in net to steal as many points as possible. Or, like Fred Shero giving Bobby Taylor a surprise spot start late in the season at Pittsburgh in 1974 to spell Bernie Parent after 40-plus games, Hakstol should only think to give Stolarz a shot “because it’s his turn.” It doesn’t have to be something planned, just a hunch.
In that vein, there are only three likely games Mason could rest: Saturday against the Coyotes, March 28 home vs. Winnipeg and April 7 at home against Toronto. All other games (Pittsburgh 2x, Colorado, Washington, Ottawa, Detroit & New York Islanders) exist against teams invested in their own playoff chase and are too meaningful to forfeit gaining the most points possible.
After the debacle of Columbus, Hakstol needs Mason again, to come back fresh 48 hours later in Denver before taking a seat in Arizona. Following that, he’ll have three days rest before the Flyers return home and another two before having to bring his A-plus game when the Capitals come calling on March 30.
If Hakstol chooses to let Mason have the entire run of this week-long road swing, it’s easy to believe he could sit out for the Jets once back home. That gives him the advantage of being fully rested during cross-country travel plus an extra day off to get sharp for the Washington tilt — even though the Caps have wrapped up everything they need for the coming postseason.
When the Flyers, under Craig Berube two years ago, made their successful acquisition of a playoff run, Mason saw time in 11 of the club’s final 17 games and started 10 of those. The remainder went to Ray Emery, who, while an injury waiting to happen, proved to be effective veteran backup.
If Neuvirth was healthy, Hakstol could exploit this option. He doesn’t have it now.
Rest and Relaxation
Mason’s had his share of niggling issues that have forced multiple maintenance days and even a short stretch earlier in the month where Hakstol allowed Neuvirth to play as often as the former deemed necessary.
After only allowing more than three goals in just one of his 17 appearances between Jan. 7 and March 11, Mason has been responsible for giving up four scores twice in his last four starts. While that may be a blip on the radar caused by shoddy defense or hungry opposition, Hakstol can’t afford to take that chance with a heavy workload in the most crucial part of the schedule.
Although Stolarz is an “emergency” recall and therefore, prevailing wisdom is to protect that asset unless absolutely backed into a corner, why not give the kid a chance to preview what he can do under a modicum of pressure? Glen Macnow, a former hockey writer in this town for the Inquirer, came up with a column’s worth of sports-radio talking points in a piece released early this week.
While the way in which he proposes a potential Stolarz introduction is straight hyperbole, he’s not exactly wrong. The Phantoms are cooked, playing out the string, and it would be pointless to keep a goalie coming off a run of 11 straight starts and 13 of 15 glued to the bench in the NHL on such a long promotion without some legitimate action.
Why wait until Mason gets in trouble and needs to be pulled mid-game? If he fails, Mason goes back in without the stress of a full night’s work. If he succeeds, all the better for Mason and his need to be rested before he’s really tested.
When the Flyers reached the postseason two years ago, Mason was given the majority of the starts down the stretch with Emery the able fill in. The temptation to go for it all will be great for Hakstol, but in a season which has exceeded expectations, he shouldn’t tempt the hockey gods. There’s nothing truly important riding on riding Mason to try and make a final push. Arizona, Winnipeg, Toronto and even the make-up Islanders game if necessary can be given to Stolarz as a test of mettle where the matchup isn’t riding on above-average to spectacular play.
Playoffs. Playoffs? Hakstol should be more concerned with his lineup continuing to solidify and playing effective, consistent hockey in all three zones for a full 65 minutes no matter what the result. It managed to fail him once already. And immediately following that, he has to be concerned with the health and welfare of his last remaining “starting” goaltender. Any possible future in a best-of-seven series depends on it.