Steve Mason always promised to be something of a mystery for the Flyers in these playoffs anyway, only there are more questions now. He spent 15 minutes on the ice during Tuesday's practice, sent out a cryptic text message to the media about the cryptic upper-body injury he'd sustained on Saturday, and neither coach Craig Berube nor general manager Paul Holmgren offered anything more than murk when asked whether Mason would be healthy enough to start Thursday night against the Rangers.
"Whether he plays or doesn't play," Berube said, "he's getting better every day."
Another year, another uncertain goaltending situation for the Flyers. From Roman Cechmanek to Michael Leighton, from Sergei Bobrovsky to Brian Boucher, from Garth Snow to Ron Hextall to Garth Snow, it never seems to change for them. They'll apparently learn Wednesday morning if Mason can play Game 1 or if Ray Emery will start in his stead, and Mason's recovery from this injury is one more step he'll have to take in proving the Flyers have finally found a goaltender they can count on in the postseason.
As terrific as Mason was earlier in this regular season, as essential as he was to the Flyers' regaining their equilibrium and recovering from their awful start, the truest test of his mettle was never going to be a long West Coast road trip in late December. The playoffs were where the pressure would be at its greatest. And after the Flyers acquired Mason last year from the Columbus Blue Jackets, it was that truth that caused Dave Rook, his old goalie coach in Columbus, to tell him, "You're kind of going to a goalie graveyard."
Still, coming to the Flyers was a no-lose proposition for Mason, and for them. They were ready to end their tilt-a-whirl ride with Ilya Bryzgalov, and Mason had to rebuild his career following a four-year freefall with the Blue Jackets.
As a 20-year-old rookie, Mason won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2008-09, recording a league-high 10 shutouts, leading the franchise to its first (and, until this season, only) playoff berth. But the Detroit Red Wings swept the Blue Jackets in the first round, and it was never that good again for Mason in Columbus - his save percentage never eclipsing .901 thereafter, his youth and the team's collective callowness conspiring to keep Columbus out of the postseason and put his long-term NHL future in jeopardy. That marvelous first season had created expectations that he wasn't mature enough to match.
"It was the best thing that happened to him and the worst thing that ever happened to him," Rook said in a phone interview. "I don't think Steve helped himself the following year, either, because he went in thinking everything was going to be easy for him. The combination of expectations and sense of entitlement, like we talked about, was a big cause of the struggles.
"From an athlete point of view, it was pretty bad. There were a lot of things that needed to be figured out, and it was only experience that could figure them out. It's not something where you can say, 'I've got to do this.' Having to handle the different situations - it was just something an older, more experienced goalie knows how to do."
The passage of time and the presence of Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese, Rook said, have helped Mason revitalize his career. They've settled everything down for him. The 33 victories, the .917 save percentage, the confidence that his teammates have in him this season - he couldn't have accomplished those things in Columbus. He needed a fresh, clean start.
"I don't think the organization made it easy on him," said Flyers forward Jake Voracek, who had been Mason's teammate for three seasons with the Blue Jackets. "He went through some struggles, and that's when you've got to help him out, and I don't think he got that support mentally, you know?
"It's up and down when you're a young guy. He was struggling a little bit, but he'd showed he had a lot of talent, a lot of potential, and he's showing it right now."
He had been anyway, right up until Saturday, until the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jayson Megna caused a three-player pileup in the Flyers' goal crease and inflicted an unknown measure of damage to Mason somewhere above his chest. "I feel better today," he said in that text message, "and we'll see how I feel tomorrow." So this is just one more question that Steve Mason has to answer now, and we'll find out Wednesday morning whether he has healed enough to handle a burden unlike any in hockey: being the Flyers' starting goaltender in springtime.
"That's a very good question," Rook said. "For his sake, I do hope he handles it well. Knowing the market there, I wouldn't want to be him if he doesn't."