At just 20 years old, most goaltenders are still honing their game, but Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Steve Mason has proven he has what it takes to be an NHL regular and may be the last piece of the puzzle that will take the Blue Jackets to their very first NHL playoff appearance.
“We haven’t really ever had this kind of a season yet,” said Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash. “We’re really building off of Mason he’s been great. Anything can happen when you have a hot goalie. It can carry you a long way.”
“If you’re going to win in this league you need to have a goalie who gives you a chance to win,” agreed Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, “so this is a good thing for us right now.”
Indeed, the Oakville, Ontario native has helped the Jackets to a 13-7-1 record in the 21 games that he’s started. During that time, he’s helped himself to the top of the NHL leaders lists, leading the league in both goals against average (1.65), save percentage (.939) and shutouts (5). Indeed, the 2006 third-round draft pick has made stopping the puck look easy posting three shutouts in a row in recent games against Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
“You try not to pay attention to it, you don’t say anything to jinx yourself you just think about the shutout, but it was nice to get [the third shutout] but obviously again the most important thing is the win and the guys came through at the end of the game so that’s huge,” said Mason.
While Mason has only recently been catching the eye of teams across the NHL, he says he felt comfortable with the team and playing at the NHL level right from his very first game — a home game against Edmonton on November 5.
“After my first game I had confidence I could play in the league and every game it’s grown. I try not to get too ahead of myself but like I said every game I play in I get more and more comfortable,” said Mason.
The fact that Mason is feeling more and more comfortable bodes well for the Blue Jackets who are currently on a six game road trip. And while the playoffs don’t start until April, the players in the locker room feel that it’s this road trip in January that can determine the outcome their season-whether they make the playoffs or fall short.
“You know this could make or break our season really if you think about it,” Mason said. “We’re off to a good start but we still have four more games on the trip so we still have a lot of work to do.”
But thus far, the Jackets playoff picture looks promising especially after winning their last four straight games and going 7-3-1 in their last eleven games. And while this is definitely turning into a memorable season for the rookie, he says he won’t stop to think about all he’s accomplished until the summer.
“Once the summer is here you can sit back and relax and think about what you’ve done. Time’s gone by real fast and ever since I’ve been here time’s flown by and the regular season only has about three months left so there’s not a lot of time left.”
Mason’s success at the NHL level hasn’t been a surprise to either his coach or the goaltender.
“I’m not really surprised at the way he’s played,” said Hitchcock. “This is the way he was as a 19 year old… this is the ways he’s played since he came back from day one. He’s no different than [Anaheim goaltender J.S.] Giguere. Giguere is a great goalie. Mason is a great goalie. I think age is irrelevant. He’s twenty years old but he’s experienced. He’s been in international competition since he was 17 years old.”
Added Mason, “I think growing up I always knew I was going to play in the NHL whether that was a realistic thought I knew once I got my opportunity that I was going to be ready and I prepared myself every day for it and you know I think the results are showing right now. Like I said I’m trying not to get too ahead of myself but it’s been fun.”
The biggest adjustment for Mason has been the NHL schedule.
“In the OHL I think you play three games a week but they’re all at the end of the week so you have the whole week to regroup for them whereas here you’re playing a game every other day so it’s a tough schedule but it also keeps you sharp.”
And while the spotlight is on Mason, he is quick to point out that his success has been the result of his teammates both on and off the ice.
“It’s nice to come in being a young guy and being able to contribute and not really just be a passenger here. The guys have made me feel real comfortable right from day one and I think that has a lot to do with the success that I’ve had personally. I think it was all the guys welcoming me.”