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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.

Kulikov returns to increasingly healthy Sabres lineup

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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No one’s going to confuse Dmitry Kulikov with Jack Eichel, but the Buffalo Sabres are likely happy to have him back after a long absence, too.

The Sabres have been on an upward trend lately (5-2-2 in their last nine games), and now they get a key defenseman back against the Washington Capitals on Friday night.

Kulikov last played on Nov. 9 and hasn’t recorded a point in 12 games, making for a tough start to his stint with the Sabres. Maybe he’ll begin to get a little more traction with his new team tonight?

He’s far from the only returning Buffalo player, either, as Josh Gorges and Nicolas Deslauriers are also back in the mix. Kulikov is slated to be on the Sabres’ second pairing with Cody Franson.

Buffalo sent Brendan Guhle to the AHL to make room for these tweaks.

With Foligno out sick, Columbus gives Bjorkstrand another shot

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 13:  Oliver Bjorkstrand #28 of the Columbus Blue Jackets lines up for a face-off during the game against the Boston Bruins on October 13, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets will be without captain Nick Foligno because of an illness on Friday, opening up an opportunity for interesting prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The team tweeted out his linemates as Matt Calvert and Lukas Sedlak as a solid fourth line facing the Detroit Red Wings.

He failed to generate much (zero points, two shots on goal) in three games so far with Columbus this season, receiving about 25 minutes of ice time over that span.

With eight goals and 12 points in 19 AHL games so far in 2016-17, there’s the thought that he could eventually make the next step to becoming a decent contributor for the Blue Jackets.

Perhaps this will constitute his first real step in that direction?

Apparently this is a pretty abrupt situation for the 21-year-old:

Gretzky defends McDavid’s outburst after Manning incident

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23: Wayne Gretzky (L) and Dale Hawerchuk drop the puck in a ceremonial face-off between Blake Wheeler #26 and Connor McDavid #97 during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Fred Greenslade /Getty Images)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

“I guess we can put the whole ‘if he did it’ thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that,” said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers’ loss.

“I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player,” Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. “I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I’m a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that.”

Gretzky didn’t mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

“And Connor, he’s going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him,” Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “He’s been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he’s always responded and done his part.”

Related: McDavid accuses ‘classless’ Manning of injuring him on purpose

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Two of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 6, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.