stevemasongetty

Under Pressure: Steve Mason

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The 2013-14 campaign was very, very good to Steve Mason.

Aside from getting his career as a bonafide No. 1 netminder back on track, the performance also netted him a handsome three-year, $12.3 million deal — one that pays $4.1M annually — and cemented him as Philly’s go-to guy for the foreseeable future.

“If you look at this season in a nutshell, he was good when the team was real bad early in the year,” then-Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said of the deal. “And the last little while, as the team’s gotten better, I think Steve has played up and down a little bit. We expect him to get better over the next three-plus years with the team and grow with the team.

“He’s a good goalie, and we believe he’s going to get better. That’s why we did what we did.”

That last part is key. The Flyers expect Mason to get better over the life of his contract and next year, the first of the extension, he’ll probably need to be.

Defensively, Philly has some red flags. The club finished 20th in the NHL in goals allowed (2.77 GAA), led the league in penalty minutes and was shorthanded the second-most times (316), second only to Ottawa. While the Flyers’ solid penalty kill bailed them out routinely — the PK finished seventh in the NHL last year, at 84.8 percent — a couple of key performers from the unit are now out of action: Kimmo Timonen (blood clots) and Adam Hall (signed in Switzerland), who finished third and fourth on the team in total shorthanded TOI last season.

Timonen’s unavailability also accentuates Philly’s issues on D.

There are two significant problems: 1) the group doesn’t feature a clear-cut No. 1, “stud” that most elite teams tend to employ, and 2) it doesn’t have a ton of depth. Prior to signing Michael Del Zotto, Philly was looking at a top-six comprised of Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann and Nick Schultz. Del Zotto helps the depth out a bit, and the Flyers will pray their health on the back end mirrors last year’s (it doesn’t garner a lot of attention, but Philly’s blueline went almost injury-free last season. Streit, Coburn, Schenn, Timonen and Grossman combined to miss just 12 games.)

Hextall is trying to look at the situation optimistically as well.

“I like our defense,” he said, per NJ.com. “I’ve said it time and time again. We maybe don’t have that top guy, that No. 1 guy, but probably 20 teams in the league say the same thing. We’re going to go with the guys we’ve got.”

All of this, of course, circles back to Mason. As the last line of defense, he fared well last year and shone in his first playoff action in five years, posting a .939 save percentage over the final five games of Philly’s opening-round loss to the Rangers. But now, he’ll need to show year-to-year consistency — something that was an issue in Columbus — and carry the weight of expectation. When he arrived in Philly, Mason was a reclamation project playing on a cheap deal. Now, he’s one of the NHL’s 20 highest-paid goalies and will be looked upon to backstop the Flyers into a second straight postseason.

The last time Mason faced similar expectations was as a Blue Jacket, following a rookie year in which he won the Calder and finished second in Vezina voting. Things went south after that, and the Flyers hope they’re not in line for a repeat performance.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.