Under Pressure: Steve Mason


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 “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.

The Maple Leafs fell apart late (again)

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 6: Head coach Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on from the bench during an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on February 6, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

No matter how much young talent the Toronto Maple Leafs have on their roster (and they have a lot) this was still always going to be another long season. The organization is on the right track, but it’s not where it needs to be just quite yet.

There will be flashes of brilliance and potential, but there are still going to be some pretty significant growing pains and a lot of frustration along the way.

Just five games into the season, they have already experienced plenty of the latter.

First there was rookie sensation Auston Matthews scoring four goals in his NHL debut and the team still finding a way to lose the game.

Then there was the game in Winnipeg where they jumped out to a 4-0 lead and then ended up losing in overtime. Earlier this week they let another third period lead slip away against Minnesota.

On Saturday, they added another one to the list in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

For 57 minutes it looked as if the young Maple Leafs were going to add to the Blackhawks’ early season woes as they held a 4-2 lead and seemed to be in control of the game. The young players were scoring goals, they were the latest team to beat the Blackhawks’ shoddy penalty killing unit, and they seemed on their way to a big early season win on the road against a top team.

Then everything fell apart. Again.

Chicago’s Artem Anisimov scored with less than three minutes to play to cut the deficit to one.

Then just one minute later Richard Panik (former Toronto Maple Leaf Richard Panik) continued his early season goal scoring surge by netting his league leading sixth goal of the year to tie the game and send it to overtime.

After the two teams failed to score in the 3-on-3, it went to a shootout where Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin scored goals to help the Blackhawks get back into the win column and sent the Maple Leafs home with another tough loss.

If you’re an optimist in Toronto you have to look at the fact that this young, talented Maple Leafs team has at least earned a point in all but one of its first five games.

They are competing, they are showing signs of being an entertaining team with a strong foundation in place.

They have actually had the lead going into the third period of every game they have played.

Yet here they are, five games into the season, still sitting with only one win.

The Jimmy Vesey show leads Rangers over Capitals

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Jimmy Vesey #26 of the New York Rangers waits for the faceoff against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on October 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin had the big highlight early in the game on Saturday night, but it was New York Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey that ended up stealing the show.

Vesey scored a pair of goals for the Rangers — the first multi-goal game of his career —  to help lead his team to a 4-2 win in Washington.

Even though he had never played a game in the NHL before this season, Vesey was still one of the most sought after free agents this summer after he completed his college career at Harvard. He eventually signed an entry level deal with the Rangers, and given how much attention his free agency saga generated it seemed hard to believe that he could ever match the hype. Especially given the track record of players signed as free agents coming out of college (it’s not a great one).

It’s obviously still very early in his career, but so far Vesey has not disappointed in New York.

Saturday was by far his best performance of the season, scoring both of his goals just three minutes apart in the second period. The first goal tied the game at two to help erase a two-goal deficit, and then his second goal proved to be the game winner.

It was also a heck of a play.

Rick Nash would add an empty net goal late in the third period to put the game away for the Rangers while Henrik Lundqvist stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced.

For Washington, the loss is its first regulation loss of the season and snaps what had been a three-game winning streak.

Video: Marc Staal was no match for Alex Ovechkin on this goal

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on against New York Islanders during the second period at Verizon Center on October 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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After being held without a point in his first two games of the season, Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has now scored a goal in three consecutive games.

That includes his goal on Saturday night in the first period against the New York Rangers.

It’s one that will probably make the personal highlight reel for Ovechkin, but it certainly won’t make the highlight reel for Rangers defenseman Marc Staal.

To say that this head-to-head matchup turned out to be a mismatch would be … well … a bit of an understatement.

As Ovechkin crossed the blue line into the Rangers zone he started to toe-drag around Staal, only to stop midway through and just rip it from outside the circle, using Staal as a screen and beating Henrik Lundqvist for the goal.

It is probably not a good sign when the defenseman has his back to the shooter when the puck is released.

That goal gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead.

Red Wings’ Abdelkader out with lower body injury

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 15: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 15, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Red Wings 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Detroit Red Wings will be without veteran forward Justin Abdelkader on Saturday night when they host the San Jose Sharks.

The official word from the team is that he is sidelined with a lower body injury.

He will be replaced in the lineup by Andreas Athanasiou. Athanasiou has appeared in three games this season and yet to record a point.

He was not only in the lineup on Friday in the Red Wings in their 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators, but also scored his first goal of the season and played a season-high 17:55.

After scoring 19 goals and recording 23 assists in 82 games in 2015-16 the Red Wings signed a seven-year $29.7 million contract extension.

According to general manager Ken Holland (via Helene St. James) he is expected to be back in the lineup on Tuesday.