The NHL’s best rookie so far this season has put up some very impressive numbers. He’s been named NHL Rookie of the Month for both November and December. He leads the league in goals against average with an impressive 1.81. He is tied for the league lead in shutouts with five and is second in save percentage with a .933 mark. Because he plays in Columbus, he may fly under the radar a bit but players around the league are beginning to take notice of the fine play of Blue Jackets’ goalie, Steve Mason.
The 20-year-old native of Oakville, Ontario has earned the attention, putting together a streak of three straight shutouts and a team-record 199:28 without allowing a goal. That puts Mason in some elite company. The only other goalie to record three consecutive shutouts this year is Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo. The last rookie goalie to blank opponents in three straight games was Hall of Famer Glenn Hall, who did it with the Black Hawks in 1955.
More important than the individual numbers for Coach Ken Hitchcock and the Blue Jackets, Mason’s strong play has the team back in the playoff hunt. As of Tuesday afternoon, Columbus is just one point out of eighth place in the competitive Western Conference.
Hitchcock indicated that his players have a lot of confidence in their rookie goalie. “The players feel like if we have a lead going into the third period, Mason will not get scored on. That’s the confidence we have in him right now,” Hitchcock said.
His teammates agree. “It’s very comforting to have him back there,” said Chris MacDonald. “If he sees the puck, he’s going to stop it. He’s very much under control and he’s pretty confident for a 20-year-old.”
It’s not like Mason has come out of nowhere. He was expected to be the Blue Jackets’ goalie of the future. The only thing was, that future was not supposed to start this season. Everyone expected last year’s phenom, Pascal Leclaire, to continue to hold down the starting job with Mason a year or two away. But Mason had other plans. He made his NHL debut November 5, against Edmonton when Leclaire was injured and played so well he has not relinquished the position.
“After my first game, I felt that I had the confidence that I could play in this league and it’s grown in every game,” Mason said. “The time’s gone by real fast ever since I’ve been here. It’s been an interesting two months already. I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself, but every game I play I’m getting more and more comfortable.”
Mason seems more than just comfortable. While most rookie goalies tend to be erratic, Mason has been very consistent this season. How consistent? In his last 12 starts, Mason has allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of them.
“He plays like he’s been in the league 10 years,” said Columbus sniper Rick Nash. “He doesn’t get flustered. He plays like a veteran.”
Mason has been quick to give credit to his teammates for his success. “The guys played great in front of myself and made it real easy,” Mason told reporters after a recent win.
Players like Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda and Marc Methot may not be household names outside of Columbus, but they have been strong in their own zone and have helped the Blue Jackets reach the Top 10 in the NHL in goals against average.
One former goalie is impressed with the rookie’s play, so far. “Mason is one of these goaltenders who is all about technique, but only to a certain point,” said ex-NHL goalie and current Hockey Night in Canada commentator, Kelly Hrudey. Hrudey told the Columbus Post-Dispatch, “Like Luongo and [Miikka] Kiprusoff, at some point he’s totally willing to abandon his technique and make a save in any way possible. He doesn’t just rely on being in the right position. He’s athletic enough to make a special save, too. We’ve seen that already from him.”
The fast start to his NHL career is a good thing, but in the long run, team success will be the key to measuring Mason’s value to the franchise. The question remains: Can Steve Mason take the Blue Jackets where they have never gone before, to the NHL playoffs? If he can maintain his present level of play, rest assured if it doesn’t happen this year, it will happen soon.