FOR A MAN who swore he'd stick to the long-term vision that got him hired, Ron Hextall last week showed the same shortsightedness that has kept the Flyers coming up empty since 1975.

Under no circumstances should Steve Mason have been in net on Thursday night, let alone Saturday.

Alas, the allure of a last-gasp, miracle run to the Stanley Cup playoffs got the best of Hextall.

Now, the Flyers are lucky Mason - one of just three pieces Hextall should be hellbent on building the future around - will miss only the next 2 weeks with a "lower-body" injury.

Goaltender Rob Zepp, who last month became the oldest rookie to win in his NHL debut since 1926, was recalled from Lehigh Valley. He likely will earn at least a start or two in tandem with Ray Emery as the Flyers embark tonight on a slate of six games in 9 days before the All-Star break begins on Jan. 22.

The Flyers entered last week with a 3.6 percent shot at a playoff berth. Even hoping against hope, they still felt the need to push Mason.

"We need to win right now and it's a coach's obligation to put the best lineup on the ice that he can, assuming that we're not putting anyone at risk," Hextall said yesterday. "We had reassurance from our medical staff that he was fine. Again, this injury is independent from any bump or bruise that he's had."

Regardless of the rhetoric, all of Mason's injuries are related. The result is a compounding effect from repetitive use and appearing in 23 out of a possible 27 games.

Let's review Mason's injury timeline:

* He missed four games (Dec. 20-27) after leaving practice on Dec. 19 with severe back spasms.

* He returned to practice Dec. 27 in Nashville. His first game back was Dec. 29 in Arizona, the first of seven consecutive games played, including the bulk of back-to-back games in Carolina and then New Jersey when Emery was pulled against the Devils.

* With 9:10 to play in the third period of Tuesday's shootout win over Ottawa, Mason took an extra long period of time (and flexed his leg) after making a routine save against Clarke MacArthur. He remained in net for the duration of regulation, overtime and the shootout.

* The following day, Mason took shots but left the ice before practice could officially begin. The Flyers knew Mason was not completely healthy because they had an amateur local goaltender ready and waiting to fill the net for practice.

* Mason went for an MRI on his "lower-body" injury that afternoon. Hextall declared later not that Mason was healthy, but that he would be available for Thursday's morning skate.

* Mason participated in Thursday's morning skate, as usual, and started against the Capitals. Late in the first period, he admitted he "tweaked" the same injury suffered on Tuesday.

* Mason practiced on Friday, as usual, and said afterword that "it's an important stretch and I want to be in net."

* He started on Saturday against Boston, his 23rd appearance in 27 possible games, and needed to leave the game before 13 minutes had elapsed after kicking his right leg out to make a routine save. It was the same leg he flexed awkwardly on Tuesday.

Somehow, Hextall said yesterday he had no second thoughts about Mason's workload and usage.

"This isn't related to anything else," Hextall said boldly. "It is independent up until this point."

Even if Mason's current injury is not directly connected to his back spasms, they could have caused him to overcompensate in other areas. For Hextall - a goaltender who fought through repetitive groin and back injuries himself - to claim ignorance to that is unfathomable.

Mason deserves credit for wanting to play through the pain. Paul Holmgren and Hextall already should have apologized for the defense they've asked him to play behind.

Coach Craig Berube is also due blame for not even considering giving Mason the night off on Thursday, as he said when asked. But Berube is coaching for his livelihood, not the future of the franchise.

That is when Hextall, the steward of these assets, needed to step in and put Mason on the shelf. What if Mason started on Saturday and tore his knee? What if he tore the groin muscle completely off the bone? As Brian Boucher noted on Comcast SportsNet, these injuries never really leave you as a goaltender.

With limited help, Mason has put together one of the most underrated seasons in the NHL. He is seventh in the league (.933) in even-strength save percentage - which removes the ugliness of the Flyers' 29th-ranked penalty kill - among goalies with 1,000 minutes played. If you take out Mason's brutal winless start, he'd be No. 2 with an even-strength save percentage of .941 in his last 23 appearances.

Mason is young, affordable and has proven to be more than simply serviceable. Along with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, he should be at the top of Hextall's priority list.

The Flyers' season was already over. They won two out of three last week and lost ground in the standings, now are closer to last place (eight points) than the playoffs (11). There was no need to risk the future for the present.

Slap shots

With Rob Zepp on his way back to town yesterday, the Phantoms called on local senior league goaltender Doug Pippy, 22, to back up Anthony Stolarz for their game in St. John's, Newfoundland . . . Kimmo Timonen will undergo a CT scan Friday to determine whether the multiple blood clots found in August still exist. It is the first step to determining whether he will be able to play again.

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers