Kari Lehtonen

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Backup options limited for Penguins after waiving Antti Niemi

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Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the last straw for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their need for Antti Niemi as a backup goaltender.

On Monday, the 34-year-old Niemi was waived as general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to give starter Matt Murray some help in goal. In three starts this season, Niemi has allowed 16 goals on 63 shots and has posted an ugly .828 even strength save percentage. (The only goaltender with a lower ESSV%? His old crease mate Kari Lehtonen, who has an .815 in two appearances.)

While Niemi was dealt a bit of a tough hand in his three starts — all coming on the second night of a back-to-back — those numbers are just plain obscene and a clear sign that the Penguins needed to move on. It’s unsure what the plan is when he clears waivers on Tuesday. Will the team look to terminate the one-year, $700,000 deal he signed in the summer, or will they, as head coach Mike Sullivan mentioned, allow him to use the AHL as a place to find his game?

“That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances and give him an opportunity to build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said on Monday.

When Rutherford signed Niemi in the summer, he said the plan was to give him between 30 and 40 games this season, allowing Murray to not be overworked before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and give Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith continued development at their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

The short-term option here is calling up one of the two kids, but if Niemi clears and they want to rehabilitate him, that’s time taken away from giving Jarry or DeSmith much-needed minutes. DeSmith has shined in three starts this year, winning all three games and only allowing three goals in 184:14 minutes played. It’s not ideal, but unless Rutherford can swing another deal to fill another void in the lineup — like he did on Saturday to get Riley Sheahan as the team’s new No. 3 center — the search could take a while.

The free agent market isn’t flowing with options and teams like Arizona, Boston and Vegas having goaltending issues, it won’t be easy to find someone.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ben Bishop is (quietly) off to promising start for Stars

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Even after winning their last two games by matching 3-1 scores, the Dallas Stars are still off to a modest 3-3-0 start in 2017-18.

Such a record might cause some consternation, and possibly some criticism for the likes of Ken Hitchcock and Ben Bishop. Especially since Hitchcock has developed a reputation for providing the defensive structures that nurture strong numbers from a wide variety of netminders.

You might have missed this in part because Bishop was briefly sidelined by another weird failing of his goalie mask (check out his gross wound here, if that sort of stuff doesn’t turn your stomach).

Bishop is now 3-1-0 with a splendid .944 save percentage and a 1.49 GAA that might elicit fuzzy memories of Marty Turco’s prime for many Stars fans. Bishop’s been sharp since coming back from injury, including stopping 49 of 51 shots on goal during the last two games.

(Things haven’t been going quite as well for Kari Lehtonen, though.)

A valuable confidence-builder

When you look at the 30-year-old’s impressive .919 career save percentage, you might be surprised to learn that many still believe that Bishop has something to prove.

Some of that comes down to taste; NHL teams seek big bodies in net like those of Bishop, but his more “blocking” style leaves many less-than-impressed. There might be a small subset of observers who will pivot from crediting the Lightning’s system for blustering his numbers straight to giving Hitchcock the credit if Bishop continues his strong play.

(Note: Bishop’s almost certain to finish the season with a lower save percentage, unless he enjoys the sort of season we haven’t seen often since Tim Thomas was playing in Claude Julien’s system with vintage Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron hogging the puck.)

The thing is, you can see why the 2016-17 season might have shaken Bishop’s confidence.

For one thing, his numbers were down; his .910 save percentage between his final Lightning days and brief stint with the Kings is the lowest mark he’s sported since a .909 mark in 2011-12 (when he received spot duty with Ottawa).

Beyond the numbers, Bishop was traded by the team he helped lead deep into the postseason. It’s reasonable that Tampa Bay went with a younger goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but much like Marc-Andre Fleury with Pittsburgh, you have to think that the season hurt Bishop’s pride to some degree.

So, yeah, it probably means quite a bit to Bishop to start strong.

Truer tests await

It’s good that Bishop shook off some cobwebs, because the Stars face stormier weather soon. They play one road game, one home game, and then go on a five-game road trip during the next seven contests. With only one back-to-back set, it’s feasible that the Stars will turn to Bishop for the bulk of those challenges.

(For more on the Stars’ schedule, check here.)

***

During an 82-game season, workhorse goalies are going to see peaks and valleys. Right now, Steve Mason is looking like a 1B at best in Winnipeg, but that could very well change. Carey Price probably won’t struggle through November, let alone all of 2017-18.

Ben Bishop will probably face some tough times. Judging by that schedule note above, it might not be long before his confidence is tested.

Still, it’s worth noting that he’s passing his early tests with flying colors.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Video: James Neal scores twice, Golden Knights secure historic win

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We are, apparently, all about making history during these opening three days of the 2017-18 National Hockey League season.

James Neal, who dealt with a hand injury throughout training camp and was only activated just prior to Friday’s game versus the Dallas Stars, scored twice in just under seven minutes to propel the Vegas Golden Knights to their first NHL regular season victory in franchise history (there’s that word again).

With the Stars leading in the third period, Neal scored the equalizer, the first-ever goal for the expansion franchise, and then the eventual winner in a 2-1 victory for the Golden Knights.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 45 saves for the win.

While the Stars lost the game, the bigger concern is for goalie Ben Bishop. After playing through the first two periods and not giving up a goal, Bishop was struck in the mask by a shot. He was cut on the play and had to leave the game, forcing Kari Lehtonen off the bench.

Neal then scored twice on Lehtonen. He scored the second goal off balance from his knees as he fell to the ice off the rush.

Under Pressure: Ben Bishop

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This post is part of Stars Day on PHT…

For a contract year, things could’ve gone better for Ben Bishop.

It started in Tampa Bay, where he felt he was playing okay, but “goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players” kept beating him.

It ended in Los Angeles after being traded at the deadline. In seven games with the Kings, he went 2-3-2 with a .900 save percentage. Not great.

Still, despite finishing with an overall save percentage of just .910, Bishop was a hot commodity heading into free agency. The Stars, desperate to upgrade their goaltending, traded for his rights then signed him to a six-year, $29.5 million deal.

After getting his guy, Stars GM Jim Nill called Bishop “an elite goaltender in this league.” Which was a fair comment to make, given we’re talking about a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist.

But of all the offseason acquisitions the Stars have made, nobody will be under more pressure to perform than the 30-year-old netminder.

“I think it’s a great team. It has a lot of potential,” Bishop said, per NHL.com. “With [Ken Hitchcock] coming in [as coach] the sky is the limit and I am excited to be a part of it.”

We all know how things have gone in Dallas the past three years. In 2014-15, the Stars had the second-worst team save percentage (.895) in the league. In 2015-16, the year they won the Central Division, it still wasn’t very good (.904). Last season, it was the NHL’s worst (.893).

And so the Stars bought out Antti Niemi and got Bishop. Kari Lehtonen is still around, but his contract expires next summer.

There’s an old saying that goes: “Goaltending is 50 percent of hockey. Unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent.”

No team has encapsulated that saying better than the Dallas Stars the past few years. And that must change if the Stars are to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Bishop absolutely, positively cannot flop.

Report: Steve Mason won’t be back with Flyers

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The free agent market figures to be crowded and unpredictable, but one thing seems clear: Steve Mason won’t return to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports that “his ship has sailed” when it comes to re-signing with Philly.

One got the impression that this would be a possibility when the Flyers signed Michal Neuvirth to a two-year extension with Mason’s situation unresolved, although the expansion draft opened up the possibility for more twists in that story.

Redemption (but also more stumbles)

Mason resurrected his career in Philly, managing an impressive .918 save percentage during his five seasons with the Flyers after managing a mediocre .903 mark during his Columbus days. The 29-year-old essentially went from “Sieve Mason” to a darling among many analytics-minded observers.

Still, the Flyers must have soured after he went 26-21-8 with a middling .908 save percentage in what was apparently his final season with Philly.

So, what’s next for Mason and the Flyers? Let’s consider some possibilities for both the goalie and his (former?) team.

Philly possibilities

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman predicts that the Flyers will roll with Brian Elliott (backed up by Michal Neuvirth). GM Ron Hextall seems savvy enough to look beyond a season of struggles to see a goalie with an overall history of production.

That said, the Flyers might not want a “quick fix” at age 32.

There’s at least an outside chance Hextall might stay in-house by combining Neuvirth and big prospect Anthony Stolarz.

One other interesting name in a platoon setup: Jonathan Bernier. Hextall has experience with Bernier during their time with the Los Angeles Kings, and the Kings lamented his loss when he went to Toronto.

Hextall tried to land a veteran goalie during draft weekend, so that might have been a preview for his free agent inclinations. If so, Elliott seems like a reasonable favorite, though the market could provide quite a few other choices.

Options for Mason

Interestingly, Mason bashed a two-goalie system back in April. If he insists upon being the clear No. 1 goalie, you have to wonder how many teams would give him the net outright.

The Winnipeg Jets were already a logical possibility, and it turns out that the two sides were in contact on Wednesday. The franchise has desperately lacked a goalie since Kari Lehtonen was a Thrasher, and if nothing else, Mason brings experience and some swagger.

Friedman also predicts Mason to Winnipeg, only making the rumblings more reasonable.

Beyond the Jets, Mason would likely need to accept a platoon situation. With that in mind, you wonder if Winnipeg might be able to get him at a discount rate.

***

Mason and the Flyers benefited from their time together, yet it appears that those days are over. It’s a sad end for some, but they’ll add some spice to this off-season, particularly for the goalie market.