GLENDALE, Ariz. - The challenge, Steve Mason said, was not dropping into his butterfly stance or flopping all over the crease to stop pucks.

Rather, Mason figured the biggest test for his "upper-body" injury would be doing all of that and then sitting through the Flyers' 3 1/2-hour overnight flight from Nashville to Phoenix.

"I thought it was going to tighten up a little bit," Mason said. "But it felt great this morning."

Mason, 26, has been cleared to play tonight against the Coyotes by team doctors. He appeared to move well in practice yesterday, facing the bulk of the shots.

The question is whether coach Craig Berube will turn to Mason just 10 days after the goalie experienced an apparent lower-back injury so painful that Mason's girlfriend needed to take a cab to the team's practice facility to pick him up and drive him home.

"He's close, I think," Berube said. "It was only one practice, really, and half of one [on Saturday]. Do I think he needs more [time]? Yeah. But, I don't know. I've got to make a decision.

"I'm not unsure that he could play. To me, it's all about practice time and that kind of stuff. He feels good. There's a good chance he could be in."

Mason said Saturday in Nashville that "he couldn't even describe the pain" he was in on Dec. 19 from that harmless play, and that he "wouldn't wish it on anybody." He admitted he needed help, leaning on walls, just to stay upright in the first days after the injury occurred.

"From what I felt then to what I feel now, I'd never imagine I could feel this good as quickly as I did just based on that first day," Mason said. "Just waking up the next morning, I needed help getting out of bed."

Ray Emery (2-1-0) and 33-year-old journeyman Rob Zepp (1-0-0) picked up the slack in Mason's stead on this seasonlong, eight-game road trip. Mason has not faced game action since Dec. 18.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said the team would make a decision after today's morning skate. Mason's return could spell the end to Zepp's storybook call-up; however, Hextall did say "we've got to create a spot," meaning that was not a guarantee. The NHL's holiday roster freeze is now over, so re-calling Zepp if need be would not be a problem.

However, with four more games remaining on this road trip and rough weather expected in Denver, where the Flyers play on Wednesday, returning Zepp to the Flyers might prove a challenge in a pinch.

"I'm not sure, I'm not a doctor, but I think once you've got an injury, you're susceptible to it flaring up again," Mason said. "Our training staff did a great job getting me back, so I'm not too worried about it."

Tense practice

Less than 12 hours after arriving at their hotel in suburban Phoenix, the Flyers were back on the ice for practice yesterday. Craig Berube was not a happy camper following the team's 4-1 loss in Nashville on Saturday.

Berube halted practice twice to bark at his team for a lack of crispness - and took particular exception with Claude Giroux during a five-on-three power-play exercise. Afterward, he downplayed the intensity - even though a jolt may have been exactly what the Flyers needed.

"I'm always like that," Berube said. "I was normal, to be honest with you. I bark a lot in practice. It was just one play that I didn't like - I was just asking him what the deal was. You guys are reading too much into it. Next time, I'll make sure I don't yell so loud. I don't want to upset you [media] guys."

Slap shots

Forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare left practice early yesterday clutching his left arm after an awkward spill into the boards. Bellemare said he is "fine" and will play against the Coyotes . . . Zac Rinaldo was a healthy scratch in Nashville. He will rejoin the fourth line, perhaps Berube's best unit the last three games, if Bellemare cannot play . . . The Flyers assigned forward Ryan White, out since August with a torn left pectoral muscle, to AHL Lehigh Valley for a conditioning stint. NHL rules stipulate White can remain with the Phantoms for 14 days before a decision must be made whether to place him on waivers or keep him with the Flyers, but Ron Hextall said that call will be made after three games . . . Defenseman Mark Streit missed practice with a "maintenance day." Hextall said Streit will play tonight. Michael Del Zotto has been a healthy scratch for 10 of the last 12 games.

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