By the midpoint of the first period Tuesday night, Steve Mason could have ripped off his goalie mask and dared the New York Rangers to shoot, and he would have caught the puck in his teeth with a smile. This was always going to be how the Flyers would survive to reach a Game 7, and here they are now after their 5-2 victory: one game in Madison Square Garden, one chance to win a playoff series they probably should have lost by now, carried there on Mason's broad and sturdy shoulders.
That Game 6 score testifies to the Flyers' finest performance of the series, to the way they came at the Rangers in waves over the final 45 minutes Tuesday. Wayne Simmonds rooted himself in front of the New York net, in the area where he does his best work, and poured three goals past Henrik Lundqvist, and defenseman Erik Gustafsson delivered the most stunning moment, scoring on a breakaway in his series debut.
But understand: Those moments never would have been possible without Mason. With his teammates jumpy throughout the game's opening minutes, turning the puck over time and time again, he made 13 first-period saves. He allowed the Flyers to withstand what might have been their worst stretch of the series unscathed, and he's the reason that they have a shot Wednesday night.
Considering their past - the questions that seem to arise annually about the Flyers' goaltending - this is a strange position for them. For once, they're the team with the hot goalie. They're the team staying in a series because of a single man. For once, it isn't Lundqvist - the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner, the 2006 Olympic goal medalist, one of the NHL's most accomplished goaltenders - frustrating the Flyers at every turn. Instead, Lundqvist watched the third period from the Rangers bench. For once, it was Mason standing tall in Game 6 four days after he stole the Flyers a 2-1 win at the Wells Fargo Center in Game 4, and it's striking to contemplate how far he's come, how unlikely his run of excellence this season would have seemed a year ago, or even just 10 days ago.
When the Flyers sent Michael Leighton and a third-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for him last April, Mason was a lost soul with a fragile future in the sport. From that incandescent rookie season in 2008-09, when he was the league's rookie of the year at age 20, he had taken a hard and fast tumble, his confidence falling as fast as his save percentage, devolving into the petulant poster child for every pro athlete who thinks it will be easy to repeat the success he's had early in his career and fails. He didn't necessarily blame his teammates for the goals he allowed, but he was reluctant to assume the responsibility himself, and the entire situation soon became untenable.
"Sometimes, he wasn't as accountable as he should have been," said Dave Rook, who was Mason's goaltending coach in Columbus. "A lot of kids his age, they make their mistakes in the American League, where nobody sees them. Steve was making them on the big stage of the National Hockey League. It was tough for him."
Those days feel like so much ancient history now. Jeff Reese, the Flyers' goaltending coach, has been a calming influence on Mason, helping him handle a level of pressure here that he would never experience with the Blue Jackets.
"I know Philadelphia is a city that likes winning," Rook said. "I also knew that he'd matured a little bit from what he went through in Columbus, and that he was in good hands with Jeff."
To Rook, who also had coached Mason in junior hockey, the Flyers made a particularly smart decision in signing Mason to that three-year, $12.3 million contract extension in January - not too long, not too expensive, the perfect midseason measure to inspire a player searching for something to prove.
"I don't want to say he's motivated by money because that's not correct," Rook said. "But when he's put in a situation like that, he is motivated by it."
He confronted a similar scenario earlier in this series, when the world waited for him to recover from that unnamed upper-body injury. After a morning practice between Games 1 and 2, he finished a workout at a Chelsea Piers rink and let his head droop toward his waist for a long while, his face pasty. It was fair then to wonder when he might play, or if he would at all. Yet there he was Tuesday, flashing his glove to steal goals from Anton Stralman in the first period, Benoit Pouliot in the second, Carl Hagelin in the third, making 34 saves in all, earning every second of a lengthy late-game ovation, a sea of Flyers fans chanting his name.
So, Game 7 now. One night at Madison Square Garden, two teams' seasons in the balance, and Steve Mason gives the Flyers the only thing they can ask for at this time of year. He gives them the most precious gift a goaltender can. He gives them a chance.