BACKUP GOALIES are a lot like backup quarterbacks.
When the team stinks, or when the players in front of the starter make mistakes, or when the starter struggles, the backup is the clear answer to every issue.
And, when an injury to the starter forces the backup into a marquee role, every small success is magnified; every deficiency, rationalized.
There are reasons why Ray Emery didn't land in a starting role after a 17-1 record as Chicago's backup last season. There are reasons why Emery didn't win the starting job from Steve Mason this season.
Those reasons were obvious early in Game 2 of the Flyers' series against the Rangers, and for all of Game 3. Emery replaced Mason in the first two games of the playoff series against the Rangers because Mason was recovering from what obviously was a concussion-related injury.
Mason dressed as the backup in Game 3 and played the final, inconsequential minutes; too little, too late.
He dressed as the starter last night, and, like a starting quarterback whose backup has been exposed, he was hailed as savior.
A savior he was. Mason stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 2-1 win. He was just as efficient handling the puck as he was stopping it.
"He was our best player tonight," said Jake Voracek, the Flyers' best player overall this series. "He was exactly what we needed."
If there was any question concerning Mason's fitness for duty, it was answered by the finish of the first period.
Mason stopped 15 of 16 shots in the frenetic first, almost all of them quality chances. The Rangers came at him from all angles, from no angles, from straight on.
"It was good to be able to really get into the game right off the bat," Mason said. "I hadn't felt the puck in a few days."
Mainly, he was solid.
Mainly, he was Mason.
Usually square, always steady.
And, last night, excited. He was the losing goalie for Columbus in a sweep 4 years ago, a series in which he never tasted a lead. It seems like a lifetime ago.
This was Mason's playoff resurrection.
"It's hard to describe," he said.
His coach, Craig Berube, said he was sharp all night, but Mason knows better. The goal he gave up 4 minutes, 38 seconds into the game smelled awful.
He blocked Dominic Moore's first shot, but the soft rebound nearly bounced right back to Moore. It lay behind the goal line to Mason's right. Moore scooped it up, carried it behind the net and beat Mason's left skate to the far post.
It smelled awful, because Emery was supposed to be the weak one laterally, unable to cover post-to-post. Mason was maybe a half-beat slower than he should have been.
"That's a play I've made before," Mason said.
He also hadn't played for 13 days.
The play seemed to oil his hinges.
He looked happy to turn back Mats Zuccarello's opening offering 48 second in, and seemed relieved when Brad Richards' backhand died on his left leg pad a little more than a minute later.
But Mason began to own the game after Moore broke his ice.
He stopped the next 33 shots. Midway through the period, Mason poked a puck away from the crease away from Carl Hagelin, then stoned Richards' shot and Dan Carcillo's put-back try; then did the same thing later.
Mason was understatedly efficient on the penalty kill, sweeping away a dump here, sutting off a lane there. He smothered Rick Nash's point-blank try 90 seconds into the second period, off a pass from behind the net . . . and, at that point, the crowd began to believe.
When he cleared a power-play dump by himself 4 minutes into the second, they were all his.
When he did it again - this time, a clear of a prolonged possession, which turned into two chances at the other end - they barely contained themselves.
The best chance the Rangers had in the second came from the stick of Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo, who nearly found Mason's five-hole rushing back to help with 4 minutes to play.
At least, it was the best chance until Ryan McDonough's 4-on-4 rush, a broken play that required Mason to cross the crease, dive back to his left and dive. His stick stopped McDonough's shot, the Rangers' 28th in 40 minutes.
"He was huge all game long," Voracek said, "especially that huge McDonough stop."
"I bit early, but I was able to reach back and get it," Mason said.
He never stood taller than in the moment of direst peril. With just over 7 minutes to play, Flyers captain Claude Giroux was twirled and twisted at center ice and left the game, and the puck went the other way; Mason's way.
No problem. Mason stopped Zuccarello, then lost his stick, but never lost his cool. The Flyers cleared.
Nash offered a nasty empty-net wrist shot with 1 minute left, and Mason's stick knocked that away, and that was pretty much that.
Usually, Mason's most important plays kept shots from happening. He extended and covered and smothered with a confidence and skill that Emery lacks.
Ray Emery didn't cost the Flyers two losses. Not by himself. He was very good at times in a Game 1 occupation, logged a spectacular second period in Game 2 and needed help he didn't get in Game 3.
Emery, the backup, did his job.
Last night, Mason, the starter, did his.
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