IN THE EARLY 1990s, when Ron Hextall was in his mid-20s and entering the prime of his goaltending career, the message was pretty straightforward when it came to playing his position and getting ready for a new season.

"All they did with us was gave us our equipment and said, 'Go get em,' " Hextall said.

There weren't goalie-specific trainers to work with in the offseason. There weren't many offseason training programs designed for goaltenders, either. You'd show up at camp, put the pads on and go to work.

Times are different now in many ways. The science of sport, different ways of treating an athlete's body and various nutritional methods have changed the way athletes - and in this case, goaltenders - prepare for their seasons.

For Steve Mason, that offseason program involved training with David Franco, a goaltending instructor in Canada. Franco, along with his brother, Marco, started the Franco Canadian Goalie School in 1991. They've worked with a wide range of talent, from the junior levels up through professionals. Alums include Curtis Joseph and Jamie Storr, who both had long, successful professional careers.

Mason's former London Knights teammate at the junior level, Adam Dennis, urged Mason to train with him and David Franco in the summers when they were younger, but Mason never agreed. Now, he says, he's regretting not doing it sooner.

"He gave me this unbelievable base to come into camp with," Mason said of David Franco.

That base has showed so far in training camp. Mason, 27, reported in great shape. In Monday's first real test against a mostly regular NHL lineup, Mason stood up to the Rangers' test and turned aside 41 of 44 shots, including 16 in the first period as New York had the Flyers on their heels.

The Franco brothers are also the goaltending trainers of former Flyer Rob Zepp, who took it upon himself to get goaltender-specific training when it wasn't offered to him regularly coming up in the minors and in his nine years overseas. Mason spent much of the summer in Ontario with Zepp, working with David Franco.

The Franco brothers' school specializes in both on- and off-ice training. The conditioning aspect has been one of the most noticeable differences in Mason thus far.

"It would just be (he and Zepp) on the ice and as the other guy's in net, the other guy is trying to catch his breath," Mason said. "Before you even have your breath caught, you're back in the net."

Mason, who said earlier in camp he'd like to play 60 games this season, had a career-best 2.25 goals against average last year. He was, perhaps other than Jakub Voracek, the brightest spot in an otherwise lackluster season. His .944 save percentage in five-on-five play was tops in the league.

But he knew there was room for growth.

"I look back to last year, and I thought Zepper was probably the best goalie in camp," Mason said. "A lot of that has to do with the prep work that he put in. I wanted to make sure that this season I took that opportunity and built a relationship with Dave back home.

"I think it's something that will continue . . . To have a goaltender coach, not only for your team but back home, that you can work with on stuff just to keep that base there is huge."

New goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh also has paid dividends. Mason said working with Dillabaugh before camp also aided in getting him sharp.

The whole process, Hextall said, shows Mason's growth. Not too long ago, Mason was the young, hot-headed, former Calder Trophy-winning goaltender in Columbus who was so fed up with hockey he considered quitting.

"I think 'Mase' has become a pro," Hextall said. "He's obviously in better shape than he was in his early career, and I think the maintenance part for him, he knows his body. The nutrition part, I think all of our guys are getting better so 'Mase' has come a long way, and I think, again, you leave the game and you always ask people how you want to be remembered and most guys say, 'I want to be remembered as a good teammate and a pro.'

"And I think 'Mase' is getting to the point where he's a good pro."

Health watch

Backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who skated Monday morning before missing that night's game because of a "maintenance day," missed practice yesterday. Ron Hextall said it was another maintenance day and he expects Neuvirth to play tonight when the Flyers host the New Jersey Devils.

Michael Raffl played his last shift against the Rangers Monday night late in the second period and did not return. The Flyers are calling him day-to-day with an upper-body injury, the same designation for Sean Couturier. Neither skated yesterday. Hextall said he expects both to be ready for next Thursday's season-opening game in Tampa Bay. He said Couturier could play as soon as Friday, when the Flyers close out their preseason schedule in New Jersey.

Matt Read was nicked up a little in the Rangers game and said he suffered a charley horse.

Slap shots

Tonight's game, which is scheduled to begin at 7, will air on The Comcast Network . . . With Michael Raffl and Sean Couturier not practicing, Chris Porter skated alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on the top line, though coach Dave Hakstol urged not to read too much into line combinations, which saw Colin McDonald and Vincent Lecavalier as the two extra skaters . . . Ron Hextall reiterated the desire to get down to the 23-man roster before Friday's game. There are 26 players in camp, but injuries will make his goal difficult to reach. Hextall said he'd ideally like to start the year with seven defensemen on the roster instead of eight, as well. "We have some tough decisions to make here," Hextall said.