Blue Jackets’ rebound hopes ultimately rest on Steve Mason’s shaky shoulders

Their financial struggles might not draw the same amount of attention as the New York Islanders or Phoenix Coyotes, but the bottom line is that the Columbus Blue Jackets are in a pretty desperate situation themselves. They’re hoping for some government help to keep them from hemorrhaging even more money and maybe even move the team, but one of the most important things that could help them turn around is a deviously simple proposition. They need to put together an actual contending team for once.

Simply put, the Blue Jackets have fallen well short of that mark for just about their entire existence, with the only minor exception being their spirited run to the playoffs in 2008-09 that was immediately squashed by a brutal sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings.

Mason brings down Blue Jackets with him

In a way, that dispiriting sweep highlighted the disturbing possibility that Steve Mason’s impressive rookie season might have been a mirage. Mason has been the definition of a mediocre NHL goalie since then, sporting the save percentage of a backup (.901) and a middling record (44-47-16) during the last two seasons. And to be honest, Mason’s numbers tailed off quite a bit even in that first season; a .916 save percentage would represent a down year for Tomas Vokoun, a goalie the Blue Jackets should have at least flirted with.

Aaron Portzline points out a disturbing fact from the 2010-11 season: Brian Elliott is the only NHL goalie with 50+ starts whose save percentage and goals against average ranked lower than Mason’s marks. While the Blue Jackets are tying a pivotal season to Mason, Elliott might not even win a battle to backup Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis.

Garon’s departure removes face-saving safety net

Speaking of backups, the Blue Jackets took a problematic step back in that department, raising their risk factor that much more. Mathieu Garon escaped to Tampa Bay this off-season after producing virtually identical numbers to Mason last season. Their odds-on backup is Mark Dekanich, a prospect who has exactly one game of NHL experience to his credit.

Looking at this awfully questionable situation, it’s not surprising that Portzline thinks that if Mason goes down in flames, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson will go down with him.

Before the Twitter neophyte introduced new additions Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek to his 5,821 followers, Howson needed to decide whether Steve Mason was still the Blue Jackets goaltender. Not an easy choice for a general manager who has to know another season without the playoffs is likely his last.

Mason was the Calder Trophy winner in 2009 leading the Jackets to their only playoff appearance. He’s been among the league’s most inconsistent players since. He’s resembled a franchise building block on some nights and a guy trying to swat a swarm of bees on others. Of goaltenders with 50-plus appearances, only Brian Elliot had a worse goals against average and save percentage last season.

That doesn’t mean Howson has made the wrong decision. It’s just means the near futures of the goaltender and general manager are irrevocably intertwined. Howson is banking on the improvement of a fourth-year pro who has the pedigree and skills. To make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets don’t need Mason to be a great as he was in 2008-09, but they need him to be much better than he’s been the past two seasons.

I’m not so sure that Mason doesn’t need to be great, at least if you define the complete body of work that was his overrated rookie season as “great.” James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter should give the Blue Jackets more offensive punch, but neither are the kind of two-way players who dominate at both ends. In other words, an already suspect Columbus defense might be even worse next season, especially after they lost a decent defenseman in Jan Hejda and traded one of their other better ones in Rostislav Klesla last season.

The team’s formula calls for them to score a ton of goals while being just good enough in their own end. That all hinges on Mason – and quite frankly – I really don’t like their chances. What do you think, though? Will Columbus make a much-needed run to the playoffs? Let us know in the comments.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs second-round schedule

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Time to get your ducks in a row (Anaheim or otherwise), as the second-round schedule has been released.

As you can see, the West series begin on Wednesday while the East ones kick into gear on Thursday. Read up on the matchups here.

For the sixth consecutive year, every Stanley Cup playoff game will be presented nationally across the platforms of NBC Sports Group and select NBCUniversal networks.

(Games listed by date, start time, teams and network.)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Date TIME (ET) #1 Washington vs. #2 Pittsburgh Networks
Thursday, April 27 7:30 p.m. Pittsburgh at Washington NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 29 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Washington NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, May 1 7:30 p.m. Washington at Pittsburgh NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, May 3 7:30 p.m. Washington at Pittsburgh NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Saturday, May 6 TBD Pittsburgh at Washington TBD
*Monday, May 8 TBD Washington at Pittsburgh TBD
*Wednesday, May 10 TBD Pittsburgh at Washington TBD

Date TIME (ET) #2 Ottawa vs. #4 NY Rangers Networks
Thursday, April 27 7 p.m. NY Rangers at Ottawa CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 29 3 p.m. NY Rangers at Ottawa NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Tuesday, May 2 7 p.m. Ottawa at NY Rangers NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Thursday, May 4 7:30 p.m. Ottawa at NY Rangers NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Saturday, May 6 TBD NY Rangers at Ottawa TBD
*Tuesday, May 9 TBD Ottawa at NY Rangers TBD
*Thursday, May 11 TBD NY Rangers at Ottawa TBD

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Date TIME (ET) #1 Anaheim vs. #2 Edmonton Networks
Wednesday, April 26 10:30 p.m. Edmonton at Anaheim NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Friday, April 28 10:30 p.m. Edmonton at Anaheim NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 30 7 p.m. Anaheim at Edmonton NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Wednesday, May 3 10 p.m. Anaheim at Edmonton NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
*Friday, May 5 TBD Edmonton at Anaheim TBD
*Sunday, May 7 TBD Anaheim at Edmonton TBD
*Wednesday, May 10 TBD Edmonton at Anaheim TBD

Date TIME (ET) #3 St. Louis vs. #4 Nashville Networks
Wednesday, April 26 8 p.m. Nashville at St. Louis NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 28 8 p.m. Nashville at St. Louis NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 30 3 p.m. St. Louis at Nashville NBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Tuesday, May 2 9:30 p.m. St. Louis at Nashville NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
*Friday, May 5 TBD Nashville at St. Louis TBD
*Sunday, May 7 TBD St. Louis at Nashville TBD
*Tuesday, May 9 TBD Nashville at St. Louis TBD

Starting time and national broadcast information for games listed TBD will be announced when available.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second-round matchups

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Want to know when and how to watch each game? Check out the second-round schedule here.

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington really had to sweat it against Toronto, but while the journey took more twists and turns than expected, both juggernauts ended up in a position to justify their statuses as favorites.

During the Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby runs for the franchises, the Penguins won both second-round series (first in 2009 and then last year). In each case, Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Will the Capitals finally break through in what might be their best chance ever? There isn’t a better way for them to truly prove their mettle than to do so against a Penguins team that looks dangerous, even with key injuries to consider.

Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers

Both teams beat higher seeds in the first round, surprising at least some. There are some fun storylines here, from a clash of two star Swedes (Erik Karlsson vs. Henrik Lundqvist) to fun trade talk involving Mika Zibanejad and Derick Brassard.

On paper, these teams aren’t as linked as the other East series, but playoff glory can make franchises become hated rivals in little time.

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

So much orange. So many goals?

With the Blackhawks, Kings, Wild and Sharks out, the Ducks get home-ice in the West and probably rank as the most familiar contender in a conference that seems heavy on “new blood.” Then again, they’re still driven by a red-hot Ryan Getzlaf, but this isn’t the same Anaheim squad as the last time they made a longer run.

Speaking of new blood, it’s unavoidable to describe the Oilers any other way. Edmonton hopes to keep its first playoff run in more than a decade going, and this series might actually be a better showcase for Connor McDavid than those tighter games vs. the Sharks.

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

Is there a matchup of goalies on hotter streaks right now than Jake Allen vs. Pekka Rinne? These “underdogs” held the top teams in the Central Division to one playoff victory combined.

While there are plenty of carryover characters from previous postseason editions of the Blues (Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen) and the Predators (Roman Josi), there’s also a new Blues coach in Mike Yeo and newly featured Nashville pieces such as P.K. Subban.

Which team will go deeper than many outside of their locker room expected? We’ll find out.

Capitals close out Maple Leafs after one last OT classic

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The Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t grab the torch from the Washington Capitals in this series, but they put up a tremendous struggle.

Auston Matthews continued to make an impression with a goal in his fourth consecutive game, yet it wasn’t enough to send this scintillating series to a Game 7. Instead, Marcus Johansson collected tying and game-winning goals, leading Washington to a 2-1 OT win to take the series 4-2.

Here is video of the tally that ended Toronto’s season:

While the Capitals taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins is “expected,” the path to get there wasn’t as many drew it up. Toronto gave Washington all it can handle in a series that tied a record with five trips beyond regulation.

The Maple Leafs can take heart in pushing the play for large spans of the series, although there have also been spans where it felt like the Caps found that extra gear.

Toronto fans who’ve been longing for a return to playoff glory must be experiencing mixed feelings. This young bunch achieved more than just about anyone expected, particularly in this series against the Presidents’ Trophy winners. That might be why it burns, though; Buds fans deal with the bitter feeling of so close.

Then again, the Capitals know all about that. They hope to avoid repeating such history in this huge opportunity. Perhaps facing a far tougher-than-expected challenge to start things off might be a blessing in disguise?

Capitals’ Schmidt hurt by Leafs’ Komarov; Record 18th playoff game to OT

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Now, players are known to at least try to return to games after injuries, sometimes ultimately leaving such efforts unsuccessful.

So, it’s possible that the Washington Capitals should still be concerned about defenseman Nate Schmidt. The solid depth blueliner was helped off the ice after a hit by Leo Komarov of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the good news is that he was at least able to make his way back for a spin later on in the same third period.

Does that mean he’ll be OK? We’ll see. The game is entering OT – the 18th of this round, a new NHL record – so a possible Schmidt injury could put Washington at a disadvantage during “free hockey.”

It makes sense that Toronto and Washington made it a new record, as this is the fifth time in six games that they beyond regulation in this series. Wow.