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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.

‘It looks like a disaster’ — Senators could be facing more injury problems

BOSTON, MA - MAY 27:  Head coach Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning speaks to the media after their 0 to 1 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on May 27, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Not only did the Ottawa Senators lose on Sunday, but three different forwards left the game because of injury.

And that was after they had already lost forward Bobby Ryan indefinitely because of a hand injury. In a 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Senators had Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Tommy Wingels leave with injuries.

Hoffman suffered a lower-body injury in the first period, while Stone was caught with a hit to the head from defenseman Jacob Trouba. That infraction might result in Trouba getting further supplementary discipline from the NHL.

“Tough day with the loss of Bobby and then we lost another bunch of guys. At some point I felt, there was nobody on the bench,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher, who appeared furious with the officials’ decision to give Trouba only a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head.

“I can give you an update – it doesn’t look good. We have to wait until tomorrow to be clear and precise about all these guys.

“Right now, we could be losing quite a few guys … It looks like a disaster. We’ll see tomorrow and maybe the disaster is not as bad as we think but you’ve got to be ready for anything.”

What especially hurts for the Senators is that Hoffman, Stone and Ryan are three very capable offensive players, and if all three are out long-term, that’s a good chunk of scoring suddenly gone from their lineup. Stone leads the team with 22 goals, while Hoffman is tied for second in that category with Kyle Turris at 19 goals.

The Senators had a chance to take over top spot in the Atlantic Division. With a win, Ottawa would’ve tied Montreal with 70 points, but taken first in the division because of fewer games played.

Blackhawks snap Sabres winning streak

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The Eastern Conference playoff race is tightening up, especially when it comes to the wild card.

The Buffalo Sabres, thanks to a three-game winning streak and six wins in their last 10 games prior to Sunday, have suddenly jumped right into the thick of that race. But with a chance to win four in a row and tie, at least temporarily, the Bruins at 64 points, the Sabres ran into the Chicago Blackhawks.

And that proved problematic.

After Evander Kane scored the equalizer with 5.6 seconds left in the first period, Chicago took over through the second half of the game, scoring four unanswered goals for a 5-1 victory to move within seven points of the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division.

Patrick Kane put a stamp on this one. Given an absurd amount of time in front, Kane was able to put on a stickhandling clinic before beating Robin Lehner on the backhand.

It further hurt Buffalo’s cause that it was unable to capitalize on a lengthy five-on-three in the first period.

“I thought our opportunity was that 5-on-3, to get not just one goal, maybe two. We gave them too much,” said coach Dan Bylsma, per the Sabres.

The Sabres now enter their bye week. They play the last-place Colorado Avalanche next Saturday. The time off might provide a rest in the middle of a grinding season, but teams have struggled immediately out of the break and the Sabres can ill afford a set back in the playoff race.

Video: On Hockey Day in America, Auston Matthews did this . . .

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 11:  Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Air Canada Centre on November 11, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Flyers 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Born in Scottsdale, AZ., Auston Matthews has taken the NHL by storm in his rookie season as an elite talent headlining an impressive freshman class.

Taken first overall last June, Matthews made history with four goals in his debut, surely a dizzying experience for Maple Leafs fans accustomed to heartbreak and frustration. And he really hasn’t slowed down since.

On Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes — and on Hockey Day in America — the 19-year-old Matthews once again put on a show, scoring his 28th goal of the season. That gave Toronto a two-goal lead.

As he’s often done in his brief time in the NHL, this goal was of the spectacular variety, as he broke in off the left wing and, as he was getting hauled down to the ice, slid the puck five-hole on Cam Ward.

Related: Auston Matthews is having a rookie season for the ages

Video: After a slow start, Evander Kane is on a roll for the Sabres

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For about a month now, Evander Kane has enjoyed a particularly productive stretch for the Buffalo Sabres.

Kane scored with 5.6 seconds remaining in the first period of Sunday’s game versus the Chicago Blackhawks, converting on a nifty pass from Jack Eichel and going top shelf on Scott Darling.

He now has goals in three straight games, and 15 points in 14 games as the Sabres have fought their way back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, this latest run comes just before the trade deadline, and Kane’s name has consistently been in speculation about a possible move — in addition to off-ice issues. While GM Tim Murray has said earlier this month that he’s not actively shopping Kane, he also didn’t absolutely rule out trading the 25-year-old left winger, now into his second season in Buffalo.

(Murray: “Is there a crazy deal that somebody could throw at me that would force me to do it? I guess there is.”)

Most impressive about Kane’s numbers — remember he missed time earlier this season with a rib injury and then had a slow start, which drew the ire of the coach — is that he’s done the vast majority of his scoring, 20 of 21 goals, at five-on-five.