After Brad Marchand's backhander caromed off Michael Del Zotto's skate and feathered into the net, the man most responsible for the Flyers remaining a possible playoff team skated across the TD Garden ice and stomped down a dark tunnel.
Steve Mason was brilliant again Saturday, making 34 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins that reduced the Flyers' postseason hopes to a pipe dream, and there was a fitting symbolism in the way the Flyers collapsed around him after they had taken a late one-goal lead.
Wayne Simmonds was called for an inexcusable tripping penalty with 2 minutes, 3 seconds left in regulation, and Sean Couturier turned the puck over in overtime - the first error leading to Marchand's tying goal with 14.1 seconds remaining, the second to Marchand's game-winner, each goal coming on a deflected shot that Mason had no chance to stop.
Had the Flyers held on to win in regulation, according to the statistical firm Sports Club Stats, they'd have had a 10.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. By losing in overtime, they have a 1.8 percent chance. No wonder Mason was in such a hurry to find the exit, and it would be understandable if he began asking himself whether that three-year contract extension he signed last season was really worth it.
He entered Saturday's game sixth in the NHL in save percentage (.926) and eighth in goals-against average (2.24) and has validated the belief that he could be what the Flyers have needed and sought: a franchise goaltender. All those years when it was their most uncertain position, and Mason has given them the stability and excellence they have lacked for so long, and the rest of the organization keeps letting him down.
During last year's playoffs against the New York Rangers, the Flyers - following the specious guidelines of the NHL's inadequate concussion protocol - rushed Mason through treatment and clearance just to get him back on the ice, his long-term well-being a secondary concern to them compared to victory in a first-round series. They have treated him much the same way this season, giving him just 16 days to recover from Feb. 10 surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee, activating him before he'd completely healed because their own financial mismanagement had left them unable to replace him without going over the salary cap.
On Feb. 26, after Mason had made it clear to reporters he could play only in a truly desperate situation, coach Craig Berube yanked Rob Zepp from a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, after Zepp surrendered two first-period goals, and inserted Mason. The only desperation in the situation came from Berube, who was terrified of losing to a bad team and too shortsighted to recognize he was putting his No. 1 goalie at risk. But he did it anyway, Mason's health be damned.
Then came Friday, when the Flyers announced that they and goaltending coach Jeff Reese had reached "a mutual agreement" to part ways, general manager Ron Hextall said in a statement. The real reason for Reese's departure, according to a Philadelphia Daily News report, was that Reese had dared to support Mason and question the Flyers' handling of his injuries. This was no minor move for Mason: He had been a lost soul over his final three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Reese had helped him rebuild his career in Philadelphia.
"He got a fresh start, and he's got a great goalie coach there in Jeff Reese," former Maple Leafs goaltending instructor Steve McKichan said in a phone interview just before last year's playoffs. "I coached Jeff, and Reeser's a great goalie coach. He's a levelheaded guy, a technical guy. He's been the biggest factor for me in his turnaround.
"He's got that experience of having been through struggles. He struggled with the Leafs. He struggled with Calgary. He played in bad situations with bad teams, and so he knew the coping mechanism for keeping yourself focused on the task at hand. With the early struggles in Columbus, Mason didn't have those things, and that influenced him. Jeff Reese has been huge for him."
No, Jeff Reese had been huge for him. From his head to his knee, from the misassembled roster of forwards and defensemen in front of him to a head coach who can't help but be careless with a goalie's career, Steve Mason keeps learning the hard way how the Flyers handle hockey's most important position. He deserved better Saturday. He has deserved better all along.