With cancer-free Mom in stands, Jason Akeson scores in NHL debut

Philadephia Flyers' Jason Akeson (42) celebrates his first NHL goal with teammate Claude Giroux (28) during the first period. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Fred Chartrand)

OTTAWA -- Standing next to each other on the blue line, with the lights dimmed and the first notes of ‘O Canada’ playing, Claude Giroux tapped Jason Akeson on the shinpad to wish him good luck.

Akeson leaned over to Giroux and said: “Great song.”

The two laughed. 

Just how it’s been for the last decade, since Giroux moved 10 hours south from his birthplace of Hearst, Ontario to the tiny Ottawa suburb of Orleans as a 14-year-old. 

Giroux’s new house was located just blocks from Akeson and they became fast friends, long before the dream of playing together in the NHL was even a thought.

It became a reality on Saturday night, in front of family and friends, as Akeson opened the scoring on his first NHL shot just 3:46 into his debut off a rebound from Giroux. Akeson’s goal, along with 43 saves from Steve Mason, helped push the Flyers to a 2-1 win in their season finale.

The Flyers wrapped up their season of discontent with wins in six of their last seven games.

It was a storybook ending for Akeson, who began the year in the ECHL after leading the Adirondack Phantoms in scoring the previous season. 

What really made it all worthwhile, though, was having his mother in the Scotiabank Place stands to complete the dream. Akeson’s mother, Patricia Wheatley, was finally declared cancer-free in December after beating a rare form of cancer which attacked the muscles and bones in her arm.

“It’s something you can’t really put words to,” Akeson said. “I couldn’t be more proud of her. Everything she’s been through, it’s helped me a lot. She’s made me a stronger person. I thank her for that and thank her for being that strong.

“Now, she’s good. She’s strong. She’s starting to get her hair back. She’s back at it. I’m really happy about it.”

Akeson shared an emotional hug post-game with close friend and fellow Phantoms call-up Tye McGinn. But every Flyer was genuinely thrilled Akeson scored in his debut - given the timing, the adversity and the setting.

Akeson said there were “so many emotions going through your body.”

“It was a big goal, too,” Giroux said. “He played really well. Sometimes when you play your first game, you’ve got some butterflies and you don’t really feel comfortable. But he didn’t look like it was his first game.”

Giroux collected his 200th career assist on Akeson’s goal. Akeson also added two shots and two takeaways on the way to grabbing third star of the night honors.

Skating in three different professional leagues in one season, Akeson capped off his amazing story of determination and dedication with a goal and a win. He finished with a combined 64 points in 77 games (10 in 14 in ECHL, 53 in 62 in AHL, 1 in 1 in NHL).

His speed and work ethic will make for an interesting discussion in training camp in September - especially if the Flyers decide to part ways with Danny Briere. Akeson and Briere are nearly identical skill-set players, with similar size, speed and hands.

“He’s a hard working kid out there with some talent,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He had a good game for us. It was nice to see him score that goal.”

STONE MASON: Steve Mason was brilliant, picking up his third win in a row. This time, Mason stonewalled the playoff-bound Senators by stopping 43-of-44 shots. Laviolette called Mason the clear “difference-maker.”

“We battled all the way through,” Mason said. “This is great, a great feeling to end off the season on a high note. It started with a great summer overall and coming into Columbus, I never got my feet underneath me.

“Coming (to Philadelphia), it was a complete re-birth. I’m coming to the rink happy and full of confidence, I’m just really happy to be here. Other than playoffs, I couldn’t ask for a better way to go into the summer than a game like this.”

In seven appearances, Mason finished with a 4-2-0 record, a sterling .944 save percentage and 1.90 goals against-average.

With the win, the Flyers climbed to 20th overall in the NHL standings and they will pick no worse than 12th in June 30’s draft in Newark, N.J. Three weeks ago, the Flyers were as low as fifth in the league standings before finishing off a 10-5-1 run in their last 16 games.

SLAP SHOTS: Mike Knuble likely closed out his NHL career with a strong performance in his 1,068th game ... Ruslan Fedotenko and Adam Hall were scratched to make room for Knuble and Akeson ... Giroux finished the season as a point-per-game guy with 48 points in 48 games. Giroux and Jake Voracek (22 goals) were the only Flyers to play all 48 games.

For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers