ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Victor Rask #49 of the Carolina Hurricanes looks on during a game against the Anaheim Ducks  at Honda Center on December 11, 2015 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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In praise of Victor Rask

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It’s been a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good start to the year for Victor Rask.

Rask, Carolina’s No. 1 center, has 10 points through his first eight games. What’s more, he’s had at least one in every contest, putting him within spitting distance of GM Ron Francis’ franchise-record point streak (Francis went 11 straight to start the ’84-85 campaign).

Rask’s playmaking ability has been a major catalyst in Jeff Skinner‘s season — Skinner sits tied for second in the league with 11 points, despite only playing seven games — and, slowly but surely, the talented Swede is turning heads around the league.

He’s turning his teammates’ heads, too.

“He’s pretty slippery,” veteran winger Lee Stempniak said, per the Raleigh News & Observer. “I’ve been very impressed. He’s a lot better than maybe I had appreciated.”

It’s not overly surprising Rask’s enjoying a breakout campaign.

Or that, prior to this, he flew under the radar.

This is just his third NHL season. He doesn’t play in a marquee market, he’s only 23 years old and while he was a decorated junior — winning gold and silver at the WJC with Sweden, starring for WHL Calgary — he lasted until the 42nd overall pick in his draft year.

But there were signs Carolina had found something special.

Rask avoided a sophomore slump in ’15-16, posting a career-high 21 goals while leading the club in power-play points. He also shouldered a heavy workload, appearing in 80 games while averaging just under 17 minutes per night.

Another sign? This past summer, when Francis signed Rask to a six-year, $24 million extension.

There were a few surprised onlookers, because of the raise — Rask went from making less than a million to $4M annually — and the term caught some off-guard as well, since Rask was a RFA with just two campaigns under his belt.

But Francis knew what he wanted — get Rask locked in for the long haul.

“He is a big part of this team’s present and future,” Francis said at the time. “We are thrilled to sign him to a longer-term deal.”

Rask’s skillset is impressive. The playmaking ability and vision are important — just ask Stempniak, as Rask has assisted on each of his last three goals — but his shooting ability is crucial, too.

Rask has a terrific wrister, which makes both him and the shot-happy Skinner a dual threat every time they’re on the ice.

Related: Carolina has a talented young blueline, too

(Video) PHT Extra: In praise of Braden Holtby

New York Rangers v Washington Capitals - Game Three
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Before we get to the video, did you know that Braden Holtby’s career save percentage in the playoffs is .936?

And did you know that, among all active goalies with at least 10 postseason appearances, only Mike Smith (.945) has a higher career save percentage than Holtby’s?

It’s true.

Now, the video:

In praise of Vrbata, who’s ‘just kind of an assassin’

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Of all the unrestricted free agents who joined new teams this summer, it’s hard to find one who’s had a bigger impact than Radim Vrbata has with the Vancouver Canucks.

Vrbata scored the game-winner in last night’s 5-2 victory over the Jets. The goal was his 29th of the season. Only nine players in the entire league have more than that.

“He’s just kind of an assassin,” said teammate Chris Higgins, per the Associated Press. “It’s pretty incredible watching him around the net — so much poise and patience. He’s very aware of how much time he has.

“It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Vrbata signed on July 3 for two years and $10 million. He wasn’t GM Jim Benning’s first choice to provide more scoring, either. That was Jarome Iginla, who chose the Avs instead.

As it turns out, Vrbata hasn’t been such a bad consolation prize.

In praise of the Hamburglar

Patrick Wiercioch, Andrew Hammond
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The NHL’s best story of the last few weeks comes from a 27-year-old undrafted free agent out of Bowling Green, with a nickname derived from the thief of McDonaldland.

That, of course, is Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond.

Hammond, the NHL’s reigning first star of the week, continued his run of improbability on Wednesday night by stopping 35 of 36 shots in a 3-1 win over Winnipeg. Since making his regular season debut on Feb. 16, the Hamburglar has gone 6-0-1 with a 1.35 GAA, .957 save percentage and two shutouts — lifting the Sens from nine points back of Boston for the east’s final wild card spot, to just four heading into tonight’s play.

“We can’t say enough good things about him,” Sens teammate Kyle Turris said following the Winnipeg win, per CBC. “We love him. He is playing great, and we’re just trying to rally for him.”

What makes Hammond’s story so compelling is where it came from: Out of nowhere. He was a good goalie on some bad Bowling Green teams during his college days and wasn’t a standout in the American League; after making a brief NHL debut last season — one 34-minute relief appearance — he seemed firmly entrenched as the Senators’ No. 3 netminder behind Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, especially after both inked contract extensions last summer (they’re carrying a combined $5.3M cap hit this year.)

Then, injuries happened.

Anderson went down with a hand ailment and Lehner suffered a concussion, which thrust Hammond into a starting role. Despite this, the Sens didn’t seem to adapt any and still struggled with the same issues they had when Anderson and Lenher were in goal — sloppy defensive coverage, too many shots allowed.

But now they’ve got the Hamburglar bailing them out.

Ottawa still sits bottom-five in the NHL in shots allowed per game (32.5) and Hammond’s stats over the last seven games reflect that. He’s faced 33.5 per night, including a combined 74 in his last two outings — a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota and the aforementioned 3-1 win over Winnipeg.

Hammond admits he didn’t foresee this run of great play, but also said it’s not a surprise.

“It’s something that you don’t really envision starting this way, but when you put the work in you don’t feel like it’s unwarranted,” he explained, per NHL.com. “You definitely don’t envision it unfolding this way, but you do think you can be successful at this level.”

The big question now, of course, is what happens when Anderson and/or Lehner is ready to return. The former seems close and, given Ottawa has made contractual commitments to both guys, there could be the pressure to turn the net back over to Anderson as soon as he’s ready to go.

Heck, Anderson was slated to start last night’s game against the Jets before ruling himself out with some lingering discomfort in the hand. Head coach Dave Cameron acknowledged Anderson needs to get back in the net soon, but how will he justify not starting Hammond in light of the club’s reignited playoff chances?

To hear Sens players explain it, the roll Hammond’s on is something special — and maybe something you don’t want to mess with.

“Hammy’s standing on his head for us,” Turris said. “I can’t even explain how well he’s playing.

“It’s unbelievable.”

In praise of Steve Mason

Steve Mason, Matt Read
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The Philadelphia Flyers are having a tough season. Even after four straight wins, their chances of making the playoffs remain slim.

That being said, we’d be remiss to overlook the season Steve Mason is enjoying in goal. In 30 starts, his .924 save percentage ranks 6th in the NHL, which puts him ahead of the likes of Semyon Varlamov (.923), Henrik Lundqvist (.922), and last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Tuukka Rask (.921).

And lest we forget, Mason doesn’t have the “he plays behind a great defense” advantage going for him. Ask anyone; the Flyers’ blue line is decidedly not great.

Mason’s career has not been without its highs and lows. The 26-year-old has gone from winning the Calder Trophy in 2008-09 with Columbus to people wondering if he’s even capable of playing in the league anymore to joining the Flyers and rediscovering his confidence again.

“Early in his career he might have enjoyed reading things about how well he was playing in this league and stuff,” said former Jackets teammate and current Flyer R.J. Umberger, per the Courier Post.

“I think now he knows he can be better and continue to be better. I think the highs aren’t too high for him and the lows aren’t too low. It’s an old saying, but I think it’s really true. Right now it seems like he’s really confident walking around with the confidence that he should have.”

Mason will get another start tonight against one of the best offensive teams in the league, the New York Islanders.

His last outing was a 30-save shutout of the Leafs.