The protocol of the NHL postseason requires Steve Mason to stay quiet about the nature of his "upper-body injury." So even before a Flyers' public-relations representative began shooing reporters away from Mason's locker after the team skated at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday morning, Mason peeled off his pads and betrayed nothing about either his condition or the meeting he would soon have with head coach Craig Berube and goaltending coach Jeff Reese.
Every clue - subtle and overt, from how the Flyers have handled the day-to-day finessing of Mason's practice time to his measured, non-denial denials to all questions about his health - suggests that he suffered a concussion when the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jayson Megna knocked him to the ice on April 12.
"I'm not getting into all that," he said before leaving. Presumably, he reserved his frankness for his sit-down with Berube and Reese, and, well, here we are. Mason emerged from that meeting as the erstwhile starting goalie, and the Flyers emerged from Tuesday night down two games to one after a 4-1 loss to the Rangers, their season in peril, their sport's most important position once more a source of angst for them.
Only the Flyers could pull this off. Only the Flyers could tell the world that their No. 1 goaltender was 100 percent healthy again and have it blossom into controversy. Ray Emery surrendered two soft goals Tuesday, allowing a bad-angle shot to pop out of his glove and onto the stick of Derek Stepan, failing to stop a 40-foot unscreened slap shot by Dan Girardi, giving way to Mason late in the third period.
The Flyers can't beat the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist with nights like this, and if Berube insisted sticking with Emery for Game 3 wasn't a difficult decision, then choosing a goalie for Friday's Game 4 ought to be cake.
If Mason is completely healthy, he should start. This is not about his being a savior, stepping back into the lineup, and playing as if he were superhuman to rescue the Flyers in this series. This is about a course of action that only makes sense. Mason is the team's No. 1 goaltender. He was better than Emery this season by every measure.
In fact, if Mason really is completely healthy - and Berube said less than two hours before Game 3 that he was - then he should have started Tuesday night. These are the playoffs. You play your best players when they are able to play, and even based on this series' first two games, Berube didn't have a close call here.
Emery was solid in the second half of Game 2, but he still allowed six goals over both contests, his save percentage an average .913. He'd been OK, but the notion that he'd somehow wrenched the starting job away from Mason is silly, no matter how much Berube praised his performance.
"Ray's played well," Berube said before Game 2. "I'm worried about tonight."
That's where everything about Mason's condition gets cloudy. The only reasonable explanation for why Berube would keep his superior goaltender on the bench for a playoff game is if Mason were still suffering some ill-effects from his injury, or if playing might reignite or worsen them. Again: If Mason was well enough to back up, he was well enough to start. Otherwise, the Flyers shouldn't have dressed him at all.
Remember: Just Monday, Mason had told reporters that he wasn't fit enough to play in Game 3, that Friday would be the soonest he would see the ice in a game again. Then, out of nowhere, Berube was declaring Mason ready to go for Game 3 yet still selling Emery as the preferable option. The guess here is that Mason felt better after skating Tuesday morning, and rather than risk having to play rookie Cal Heeter if Emery was injured, Berube dressed Mason, banking that Emery would emerge unscathed.
Of course, if Mason does have a concussion, he and the Flyers could be taking a graver risk by having him suit up at all before his head has fully healed.
"The main thing is you want to be 100 percent," said Flyers forward Brayden Schenn, who suffered a concussion two years ago, during his rookie season in the NHL. "That's not one of those injuries you want to be fooling around with, at 90 or 95 percent. You want to make sure you're 100 percent for a long period of time before you head back in there."
One day. That's supposedly how long it took for Steve Mason to go from unable to play to good as new, for the Flyers to go from being even with the Rangers to having their season rest on this tipping point. So on we go to Game 4, and once more at this time of year, this team's goaltending is in flux.
Only the Flyers. Always the Flyers.