DALLAS - When Flyers coach Dave Hakstol says Steve Mason is still his No. 1 goalie, he's playing with semantics.
What Hakstol means, it seems, is that he will give Mason every opportunity to regain the form that made him one of the NHL's elite goaltenders last season.
But based on Hakstol's decision to start the supposed backup, Michal Neuvirth, in consecutive road games Thursday and Friday, it's clear the rookie coach will go with the hot hand, regardless of the dollars being paid.
"I was surprised but also very excited," Neuvirth said of starting on back-to-back nights.
Mason is in the second year of a $12.3 million extension that pays $4.1 million a season until the end of 2016-17. In July, Neuvirth signed a two-year deal that pays $1.625 million annually.
With Neuvirth atop the NHL leader board in save percentage (.939) and third in goals-against average (2.00), Hakstol is rewarding him with playing time, and not thinking about contracts.
Common sense says Hakstol doesn't want to call Neuvirth his new No. 1 because he doesn't want to affect Mason's confidence, which isn't exactly at an all-time high.
Fact is, it doesn't matter what Hakstol says about who is his go-to goalie. The proof is displayed by whom he puts in the lineup. And at this point, if the Flyers were in a must-win situation, it would be difficult not to give Neuvirth the call.
The knee-jerk reaction would have been for Hakstol to start Mason in Dallas on Friday. After all, Neuvirth had played the previous night in St. Louis, recording a hard-earned, 4-2 win. A lot of coaches would have gone with the rested goalie Friday.
To Hakstol's credit, he went outside the box, going with Neuvirth based on his recent body of work.
"It doesn't change for us," Hakstol said when asked whether he had a new No. 1 goalie. "Neuvy has played extremely well, and he earned that start [Friday]. We'll look forward to the next game and make a decision as we get toward game day."
The Flyers host Carolina on Tuesday. Mason, 27, has not won in his last seven home starts (0-3-3 with a no-decision), though his teammates have to share the blame.
"Nothing changes in terms of No. 1 and No. 2," Hakstol said. "Mase is our guy still."
Neuvirth, 27, played sensationally in Friday's 3-1 loss to explosive Dallas, which iced the win with a late, empty-net goal. He stopped 41 of 43 shots in one of his best performances of the season.
"If Neuvy doesn't play the way he played, we get blown out," said captain Claude Giroux, whose team was outshot, 44-20, and gave the Stars six power plays.
"Hats off to him," winger Matt Read said. "He's been playing great lately, and he's earned the ice time he's getting, so it's good to see that. The guys in front of him have to do a better job supporting him."
Neuvirth is having the best season of an NHL career that began with Washington in 2008-09.
"To be honest, I only played against him once or twice . . . but to see him in practice, you get frustrated a lot at not being able to score on him," Giroux said.
Neuvirth and Mason were selected in the 2006 draft. Neuvirth was chosen by the Capitals in the second round with the 34th overall pick, 35 slots before Mason, who went in the third round (69th overall) to Columbus.
Early this season, Mason, one of the team's hardest workers, dealt with a sensitive family issue that seemed to affect his play, then got back in sync with five strong performances in a six-game stretch that started Nov. 17. But he has slumped recently - playing more crouched over and making himself smaller in the net - and overall is 5-8-4 with a 2.93 goals-against-average and .905 save percentage.
"Mase is a great goalie; he's just not getting the bounces of late," Read said. "But on any given night, our goalies can win a game for us . . . even when we're not playing our best."
Do the Flyers have two No. 1 goalies?
"Definitely," Read said.