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Playoff start will shape Mason's maturity

Former Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher can relate to the experiences that Steve Mason is going through in the playoffs.

STEVE MASON has not won a playoff game in his National Hockey League career. He also never has been put in the position he will be in tonight, asked to stop the New York Rangers' momentum, buy some time early in the game for his team to establish its revised plan, all while shaking off nearly 2 weeks' worth of rust and any lingering fatigue from what most believe was a concussion suffered in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

"After 2 weeks off, is it probable that he's going to go in there and be lights out?" Brian Boucher was saying yesterday. "It's going to be difficult, there's no question. Can it be done? Yes, it can be done."

Beyond their brief professional intersection at the end of last season, there are some interesting parallels between Boucher and Mason. Both exploded onto the scene as rookies, Boucher acrobatically taking the Flyers to the brink of a Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2000, Mason edging out fellow rookies Bobby Ryan and Kris Versteeg to win the Calder Trophy in 2009.

Both buckled the following season from the weight of expectations, some theirs, some the public's. Three seasons after he singlehandedly backstopped the Blue Jackets into the playoffs (and a first-round sweep by the Red Wings), Columbus thought so little of their still very young goalie that last year he was traded to the Flyers for Michael Leighton - who played the past season for a Ukrainian team in the KHL.

The bloom on Boosh fell off quicker. He was replaced by Roman Cechmanek early in the following season, and traded to Phoenix in 2002, the first moves in a decade's worth of bouncing around before he struck lightning again here late in the 2009-10 season.

Both men matured from the experience. Forced at times to sign minor league deals in order to stay in the NHL, Boucher - who still holds the NHL record for consecutive scoreless minutes - became the consummate backup. He supported the starter. And he tried like hell to stay sharp over what was often weeks of inactivity.

"It's tough," Boucher said when asked what Mason is up against tonight. "I think it's beneficial that there was a two-game layoff between Game 3 and Game 4. That's a nice break for the Flyers. But I certainly think there's going to be a little rust in there. And nerves. He's going to have to battle through that. Unfortunately coming into this situation, down two games to one, he doesn't have time to shake it off. He's got to figure it out pretty quickly so the Flyers can win Game 4. Because I think it's as much of a must-win as you can find for this point in a series."

For the record, Mason insists he won't, or can't, think that way. "I don't prepare myself any differently for the first start of the season into the last start," he said yesterday. "I treat every game as if it's the same. I think that's just a way of staying even-keeled. And not giving yourself any reason to panic or anything like that."

Like Boucher, that approach is based not on his past successes, but failures. "Not even just my game in that sense," Mason said, "but growing up as a person. Being able to go through a lot of difficult times and coming out on top."

Boucher had sat for 15 consecutive games in the 2009-10 season and played in just a couple games from Christmas to mid-March before he became the Flyers' defacto starting goalie after Leighton suffered a high-ankle sprain in the early parts of a game against Nashville. Boucher lost that game in overtime, and the Flyers won only once over the next six games, but Boucher's play was not the reason for that. He even went toe-to-toe with Henrik Lundqvist over the final weekend, winning a shootout to push the Flyers into a playoff spot and their improbable run to the Finals that season.

Boucher followed that by outplaying Martin Brodeur in the Flyers' five-game, first-round upset of New Jersey before a knee injury sidelined him during the Bruins series. But his stumbling, jumping celebration after that shootout win always will be his Flyers moment, and an apt metaphor for the fortitude he showed over his career.

Mason's metaphor has yet to be filmed. But tonight may give us an indication what shape it will take when his career is done.

"He's had some success in the league," said Boucher. "He's had some disappointment. It's all part of the learning process . . . I think he's realizing here in Philadelphia that playoffs are a big deal and maybe that wasn't the case in Columbus where they were just happy to get to the playoffs and there weren't that many expectations. With the way he's played since he's been here, I just cannot see how he couldn't elevate his game to that level in the playoffs. He's given me every sign that he can do it.

"And hopefully it starts tonight."