COLUMBUS, Ohio – Steve Mason has worn the Maple Leaf on his chest with pride in the past. But the Columbus Blue Jackets rookie goaltender showed little mercy for teams from his homeland last week.
The 20-year-old from Oakville, Ont., started his NHL career with a splash by running the table against Canadian competition in his first three starts.
His first win came against the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-4 thriller last Wednesday. He followed that up with back-to-back victories last weekend, beating Montreal 3-2 in a shootout on Friday and Calgary 3-1 the following night.
Out of nowhere, Mason is 3-0 with a .907 save percentage and 2.63 goals-against average.
“Coming into the year, I knew I could play if I was given the opportunity,” said the reserved Mason, who will start against Phoenix on Wednesday. “I put a lot of hard work into it.”
Mason was drafted 69th overall by the Blue Jackets in 2006 and is blossoming at the perfect time for head coach Ken Hitchcock. With starter Pascal Leclaire out with an ankle injury, the rookie was called up Nov. 4 and debuted against the Oilers over backup Fredrik Norrena.
After that win, Hitchcock said it wasn’t difficult to call his number for the weekend games.
The resulting victories have created a different energy in the club and thrown the depth chart into question.
“I looked at the way he played and the way the guys played around him and it was an easy decision,” said Hitchcock. “We needed something to change for us to get value for the work we were putting in. We were playing well and not winning and it was frustrating for the players.
“When Mase came up and played, then that opened another door for him to take advantage of.”
The NHL callup comes near the end of a memorable calendar year that saw Mason backstop Canada to a gold medal at the world junior championships. He returned to his junior club, the London Knights, but after posting a 19-4-3 record with a 2.79 goals against average, Mason was traded to the Kitchener Rangers.
Mason went 13-3 down the stretch with Kitchener but after winning his first five playoff games, he hurt his left knee and missed the remainder of the post-season.
“It was definitely a disappointing way to end the year,” he said. “I was part of the team but not being part of it on the ice, it was difficult to watch.”
Six months of rehab followed, which threw Mason’s summer schedule off.
In September, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery before going 2-1 with Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Then came the call from the Blue Jackets. Many things stand out on Mason – everything from his towering six-foot, four-inch frame to his right-handed catching glove (which Hitchcock says is a problem for shooters).
His teammates have noticed one specific thing – poise.
“It’s his first couple games in the NHL and he’s playing like a 10-year veteran,” said Jackets captain Rick Nash. “He reminds me a lot of (Roberto) Luongo. He’s positional, he doesn’t get himself out of the play.
“He’s playing solid.”
Hitchcock believes that Mason’s experience as the top goaltender at last year’s world junior tournament has been beneficial in transitioning to the NHL.
“Any athlete at a young age that goes through the stress of not just winning a hockey game but doing something big in a game, that has a lasting impact,” said Hitchcock. “You can always draw on that and Mase has had to draw on that lots.”
Mason, who grew up a fan of Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils, only started playing in net 11 years ago. At age nine, he told his parents he was tired of playing out and wanted to be a goalie, to which his mother responded with: “You’re nuts.”
Mason was always determined to succeed in between the pipes and now a week into his NHL career, he’s understandably pleased with his progress.
“I talk to my friends back home every day and I ask them what’s up,” he said. “They’re writing essays for school and I’m just getting back from practice.
“I have it pretty good right now.”