January 18, 2009
Columbus Blue Jackets in the Hunt for Their First Playoff Berth
By JEFF Z. KLEIN and STU HACKEL
The Columbus Blue Jackets have been in existence for eight seasons, and they have never made the playoffs. Only the Washington Capitals, who made their maiden playoff trip in their ninth season, had to wait longer for a spring awakening.
But now the Blue Jackets’ fortunes could be changing. And if they do, much of the credit must go to Steve Mason, a young goaltender who is having a phenomenal rookie campaign.
Mason, a rangy, butterfly-style goalie chosen by Columbus in the third round of the 2006 draft, had a terrific .936 save percentage, second only to Boston’s Tim Thomas, through Friday’s games. He was named the N.H.L.’s rookie of the month for both November and December, and he ended 2008 with three straight shutouts, something no first-year goalie had done since Glenn Hall in 1955.
And most important, Mason, 20, has backstopped the Columbus into postseason contention. Going into Saturday’s games, the Blue Jackets were a point out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Does Mason ever take a moment to catch his breath in amazement at how well it has all gone so far?
“I haven’t really had time to sit back and think about it,” he said in an e-mail message from Columbus, Ohio. “That’s what the summer is for.”
Mason grew up in Oakville, Ontario, between Hamilton and Toronto, but the player he most admired was the Devils’ Martin Brodeur.
“I never really paid attention to any other goalie other than him,” Mason said. “He’s my favorite goalie from right when I started playing, and he still is. He’s had a heck of a career, and if I could even have half of that, I’d be pretty happy.
“Growing up, my favorite team was the Devils just because of him. I had a Brodeur jersey and everything.”
Mason was chosen to play for Canada at last year’s world junior championship in the Czech Republic. He was brilliant, stopping 95 percent of the shots he faced as the Canadians won the gold medal.
As if playing for his country were not pressure enough, Mason learned at the tournament that his longtime junior team, the London Knights, had traded him to the Kitchener Rangers.
“Obviously, it’s a good stage for any player to be playing in juniors, and to get traded is a good experience,” he said. “It prepares you for down the road, possibly. Since then, there has been no real pressure. Nobody has put anything extra on me.”
Maybe Mason’s blitheness stems from his easy recovery from knee operations in April and in September. In any case, he arrived in Columbus in November and took over for the injured No. 1 goalie, Pascal Leclaire.
Mason, who led the N.H.L. with six shutouts, has a shot at becoming the third rookie in league history to finish first in save percentage (after Ed Belfour in 1991 and Ron Hextall in 1987). And he can help the Blue Jackets reach those elusive playoffs.
The key to that, he said, is “putting together a long winning streak, with good consecutive efforts all around.”
It also helps if your rookie goalie stops just about everything he faces.