Through the first two months of the 2015-16 NHL season, the Philadelphia Flyers have performed like a below-average hockey team. It's obvious from their record (9-10-5), their place in the standings (sixth in the Metropolitan Division), and their advanced statistics at even strength (20th in Score-Adjusted Corsi). No matter which way you slice it, Philadelphia has simply not played like a playoff contender.
Blame can be distributed throughout the roster. The defense has predictably struggled, both in terms of shot prevention and in helping the forwards to generate controlled offensive zone entries. Jakub Voracek is pacing to a 44-point season, which would be his worst production since his rookie year. Secondary scoring has been inconsistent at best, and the third and fourth lines have failed to drive possession.
But one group can escape blame entirely. The Flyers' goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth has been rock solid in 2015-16, despite facing a barrage of both shots on goal and high-quality chances night after night.
Flyers goalies vs. the League
A quick glance at the NHL's goals against totals isn't flattering to the Flyers. They've allowed the tenth-most goals in the league this season, and are 12th in Goals Allowed per games played. But like many statistics, those numbers do not tell the entire story.
Philadelphia ranks in the bottom third of the league in goal prevention primarily due to the amount of shots faced, not because of poor goaltending performances. They're second only to the Ottawa Senators in shots allowed, holding strong at 32.8 per game.
However, Mason and Neuvirth have combined for a 0.918 total save percentage in all situations, according to War-On-Ice. That places them seventh in the league, just behind Montreal, Tampa Bay and Florida. Their performance at even strength is even better - during 5-on-5 situations, the Flyers rank second in save percentage with a 0.944 mark, behind only Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers.
But unlike the Rangers, the Flyers have not leaned on one world-class goaltender to carry them through the first quarter of the season. Instead, they have two netminders helping the cause.
Mason and Neuvirth
At the start of the season, Michal Neuvirth was a revelation for the Philadelphia Flyers. Originally signed as a backup, Neuvirth stepped up as the starting goaltender while Mason dealt with a personal issue. His play was outstanding. The Czech goaltender earned back-to-back shutouts in his first two starts with the Flyers, and holds a 0.939 save percentage through ten games this season.
That's tops in the league. No one - not Lundqvist, not last year's Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price - has posted a better save percentage in 2015-16. Now, the sample size does remain small. Neuvirth's career save percentage is 0.914, and it's to fair to expect that his rest-of-season performance will fall closer to that mark than his current stellar rate.
But he's already banked those strong games. And considering the team's scoring woes, Neuvirth's play was necessary for the team to stay afloat while Steve Mason dealt with personal issues and early statistical struggles. Now, Neuvirth no longer has to carry the load, as Mason has started to hit his stride.
Take away that FLA debacle in 2nd game of season, and Mason has .919 SV%, 2.51 GAA for season. Meanwhile, Neuvirth continues to shine.— Bill Meltzer (@billmeltzer) November 29, 2015
Normally, it's fair to be skeptical of the "take away his worst game and he's great!" analysis. But this is one of the rare occasions where the term 'throwaway game' is justified. Mason never should have played against Florida - his mind was obviously elsewhere (which he later admitted) due to his personal issues and it was clear in the locker room that his teammates did not blame him for his struggles. While the issue was kept private, the Flyers players obviously knew details and deemed it a sufficient explanation for their goalie's poor play.
In addition, Mason's even strength save percentage remains stellar. His 0.943 five-on-five save percentage ranks sixth in the NHL, just behind teammate Neuvirth. Mason's underwhelming 0.911 in all situations is almost entirely a result of an awful save percentage while shorthanded (0.727).
But with top penalty killers Sean Couturier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare now back in the lineup after extended absences (they rank first and second in shorthanded shot attempt prevention on the Flyers), the unit has stabilized. They've killed 19 straight penalties, a testament to the team's ability to limit high-danger scoring chances since Bellemare and Couturier have returned.
Expect Mason's shorthanded save percentage to continue to climb, helping to counterbalance any decline in his stellar 5-on-5 rates.
Flyers goalies are facing the toughest shots - and thriving
The Philadelphia goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth has played in front of one of the worst shot prevention units in the NHL and is still stopping pucks at a rate well above the league average. And don't think that their statistics are artificially inflated due to a lack of scoring chances. The Flyers have bled scoring chances against in the season's first two months, and not even that has fazed the goaltenders.
In terms of high-danger scoring chances against in all situations, the Flyers are allowing the second most out of any team in the league. Only the Winnipeg Jets have allowed more raw high-danger chances and are permitting more per sixty minutes. During a full game, Philadelphia opponents have peppered Mason and Neuvirth with an average of 12.8 of the highest quality scoring chances tracked.
Despite the deluge of chances, Mason and Neuvirth have held strong. Nick Mercadante of Hockey-Graphs created a statistic called adjGSAA/60, which essentially accounts for shot quality to determine goaltender performance. It tracks league-average performance of all shots fired at a goaltender, and calculates how many extra goals have been stopped by an individual netminder above the expected baseline.
According to this metric, both Neuvirth and Mason grade among the league's best in 2015-16.
Mercadante's metric only tracks even strength play, so it does not account for Mason's problems while shorthanded. Still, it confirms that Flyers' goaltenders have performed well above-average relative to the quality of chances that they have faced. Neuvirth ranks fourth among qualifying goaltenders, and Mason is right behind in fifth. To simplify the statistics, both Mason and Neuvirth have (on average) stopped an extra goal every two games according to adjGSAA/60.
Philadelphia goalies have simply stopped lots of shots this year, regardless of whether they are coming from way out at the point, or right in close from the slot.
For years, the Philadelphia Flyers were unable to find a long-term solution in goal. It cost them multiple failed draft picks and free agent signings. It cost them $39.5 million in salary and buyouts on Ilya Bryzgalov. And it very well may have cost them the Stanley Cup in 2010 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
It's appropriate, of course, that Philadelphia would solve their goaltending situation during a rare period of weakness from the rest of the roster. The Flyers can't score, they're below-average at puck possession, and they have one of the weakest defenses on paper in the National Hockey League. But the tandem of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth has performed admirably in 2015-16.
Mason and Neuvirth combine for a save percentage that ranks in the NHL's top ten, despite facing the second most high-danger scoring chances on a nightly basis. So far this season, the goalies have been the only thing keeping Philadelphia from taking up residence in the darkest part of the league's cellar. But if the Flyers cannot improve their performance in front of their netminders, the hockey world will remain largely unaware of the team's steady play in goal.