The roadblock between the Philadelphia Flyers and a playoff spot

Steve Mason got the shutout against the Canucks thanks in large part to saves like this one, where he stops Alex Edler’s shot with his wrist.

As the Philadelphia Flyers have surged up the Eastern Conference standings, they’ve been steadily getting more attention. Once seemingly destined for the draft lottery, the Flyers are now in the thick of the playoff race with the Penguins, Islanders, Bruins and Red Wings.

A healthy amount of the credit for that success has justifiably gone to standout rookie Shayne Gostisbehere, whose unique combination of electrifying offensive skills has rejuvenated an offence that was floundering in the early stages of the campaign.

Equally vital has been the production from the goaltenders. Their cumulative even strength save percentage is behind just the New York Rangers (more appropriately: Henrik Lundqvist’s wizardry), and only the Blackhawks, Lightning, Blues and Capitals have stopped a greater percentage of shots they’ve faced overall.

Well before their power play rebounded and their five-on-five possession game saw its recent uptick, the Flyers’ backbone was the 1A/1B approach they were using in net.

Now that Michal Neuvirth will miss the rest of the regular season, all of the attention shifts to Steve Mason who will presumably be expected to handle all of the responsibilities as a result.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because Mason has been fantastic for the Flyers since the day he arrived in Philadelphia via trade. Considering he’s second in five-on-five save percentage and 11th in all situations as a Flyer, it seems fair to say that some of us may have been wrong about Mason’s abilities. At the very least, something fundamentally changed in his game during his flight from Columbus that dramatically altered the course of his career.

The interesting wrinkle here is that the schedule gets decidedly tougher for the Flyers in the final month of the season. Specifically with regards to the timing of their remaining games, as they have three sets of back-to-backs looming ahead. Assuming coach Dave Hakstol is understandably wary of throwing a young, inexperienced backup into the fire at this point, Mason will likely have to start all of those games.

Based on what we know about how goalies historically perform in back-to-backs, this isn’t an ideal proposition for the Flyers or Mason.

Rested Goalies Tired Goalies
2010-11 0.913 0.909
2011-12 0.915 0.905
2012-13 0.914 0.900
2013-14 0.914 0.909
2014-15 0.915 0.911
2015-16 0.916 0.917
Average 0.915 0.909

(note that “rested” goalies are ones who have had at least a night off between appearances in which they played 40+ minutes, whereas “tired” goalies played on consecutive days)

Given that the author of the article linked above now works for the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s somewhat ironic that Cam Ward has played more “tired” games this season than any other goalie in the league. He’s sported a cool .896 save percentage in those seven appearances.

And if we look at Mason’s track record, he hasn’t been able to buck this trend in his career either. The sample size caveat is important to keep in mind here, especially considering that a smaller portion of appearances like the ones in which he was “tired” are subject to more extreme volatility and therefore less predictability.

Rested Steve Mason Tired Steve Mason
Games Played 353 44
Shots Faced 10,163 1,230
Saves Made 9,291 1,090
Save Percentage 0.914 0.886

The league as a whole has generally taken notice of this trend over time. Fewer goalies are being called upon to play on consecutive nights than ever before, with teams more regularly using these occasions as an opportunity to rest their starter and get his back-up some burn.

Scheduled Back-to-Backs # of Tired Goalie Starts
2010-11 474 229
2011-12 415 187
2012-13 262 136
2013-14 441 158
2014-15 412 156
2015-16 412 124

This has been easier to do because the position is deeper than it’s ever been before. Particularly on the margins, where goalies have arguably evolved more than any other from one generation to the next.

There was a time when you’d be hard-pressed to find 30 legitimate goalie options across the league. Now, nearly every single team has two reasonable options on their roster and a third waiting in the AHL. The days of using your backup goalie as a white flag signal are over.

With the Flyers, they had two interchangeable options and found success alternating them. Unfortunately, they’ve now lost that luxury at the most inopportune time.

Whether it’ll ultimately matter in any tangible way is tough to say. The tricky thing about goaltending is that a difference in true talent level of this magnitude could take hundreds (if not thousands) of shots to truly manifest itself in the results. While the drop from a goalie with a .915 career save percentage (take Craig Anderson or Ryan Miller) to one with a .909 save percentage (like the aforementioned Ward or Ondrej Pavelec) is discernible, over just a couple games the lines can easily be blurred. It would theoretically take ~167 shots against for it to result in the difference of a goal.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Mason’s workload won’t become a factor and throw a monkey wrench into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. With so little separating the handful of teams competing for those final spots, every single little detail is magnified. Regardless of how incremental the impact, it could ultimately be the difference between making and missing the Stanley Cup playoffs.

(A hearty stick-tap to Emmanuel Perry and Corsica Hockey for the help with putting all of the data used in this article together)