COLUMBUS, Ohio – Not good. Less than seven minutes remained in regulation in a tie game Tuesday night, and goaltender Steve Mason lay on his stomach after stretching to make a save. He was in obvious pain – pounding his glove onto the ice, grabbing at his right leg.
It looked bad, really bad. It looked like another setback in Mason’s still young career, another disaster in the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ disappointing season. After the trainers tended to him, Mason slowly glided off the ice, hunched over.
But little more than three minutes later, Mason was back. Cramps. That’s all it was. That’s what happens sometimes when you haven’t played in almost a month.
And in the end, after James Wisniewski scored in the shootout to seal a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, Mason pumped his glove as he came out of the net to celebrate. Hey, he had made 30 saves, he was the game’s first star and this was one of the happiest moments of a largely sad season. He deserved to celebrate.
It didn’t matter that he was drained.
“I need an IV in me,” he said.
It seemed curious that Mason was in net in the first place. After the morning skate, coach Scott Arniel was asked why he chose this game, of all games, to start Mason for the first time since mid-November.
“Why not?” Arniel responded.
Um, I could think of a few reasons. The Canucks came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup last season and had regained their form on a 9-1-0 run. They had the West’s best offense and some of the NHL’s best special teams. They had two of the league’s top scorers – the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik – and a red-hot Ryan Kesler.
And Mason … well, his goals-against average (3.63) ranked third-worst in the league, his save percentage (.875) second-worst. For more than two seasons, he has been trying to regain the level he reached in 2008-09, when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. He was blitzed early this season, then took a Rick Nash shot in the mask during warm-ups one night, then watched Curtis Sanford shine in his place. He sat out 12 straight games. His confidence has been an issue, and this did not seem like a night when it would be bolstered.
“Hopefully he’s in a good place,” Arniel said in the morning, “and he’s feeling good about himself tonight.”
No one has had much to feel good about in Columbus.
The Blue Jackets made a splash in the off-season, trading for center Jeff Carter, then trading for the rights to Wisniewski and signing him to a huge free-agent contract. The team had made the playoffs only once in its 10-season history, and the feeling was that it was time – or maybe that it was about time. The Jackets’ payroll pushed toward the salary cap.
But then Wisniewski had to open the season by serving an eight-game suspension for a post-whistle incident in a preseason game, and then Carter suffered a foot injury after playing only five games. The Jackets started 0-7-1, or 1-9-1, or 2-12-1, depending on where you want to draw the line. They were awful, unorganized, and they helped make Mason look awful.
“We were giving up, like, 12 odd-man rushes against,” Wisniewski said. “I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
Other teams have made coaching changes – the St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings. The Blues even hired Ken Hitchcock, the guy the Jackets fired in February of 2010, just months after he led them to their only playoff appearance. Hitch promptly got the Blues rolling on an 8-1-2 run.
“We have a lot of confidence in Scott and the staff,” Howson said. “The team was so disjointed early on, it just wasn’t a fair evaluation of anybody here, I didn’t think, including the players. I wanted to see – once we got a semblance of our team back and some more people healthy – what we could do.”
Carter and Wisniewski played together for the first time Nov. 12. Since then, the Jackets have gone 7-5-3. They have competed harder and played with more structure – in front of Sanford, for the most part.
Arniel made it sound as if Mason were a computer that had crashed, saying the break gave him a chance to “reload himself.” Mason said he went back to “Goaltending 101,” working with goalie coach Ian Clark one-on-one, focusing on the basics, not overanalyzing anything. He saw his teammates work, too.
“I’ve obviously had a lot of time to watch them and analyze them and see the improvements they’ve made in their games,” Mason said. “I’ve been pretty impressed with it.”
Mason said he was nervous early Tuesday night. But the Jackets helped him ease into the first period. Carter gave the Jackets a 1-0 lead on the power play, and they limited the Canucks to only five shots. Mason made some sharp saves in the second (and got some help from a goal post). And though he gave up a goal in the third to Max Lapierre, the Jackets didn’t fold as they have when coughing up leads in the past. They stuck with it and won. They held the Canucks’ potent power play 0-for-4.
“This is great that we can prove that we can pull these wins out,” Wisniewski said. “Close enough’s not good enough anymore. We’re paid a lot of money to win games, not to come out and give our best effort.”
Let’s not get carried away. The Canucks were flat as could be Tuesday night, and the main reason the Jackets feel so much better about themselves is because they had sunk so low. A 7-5-3 stretch does not equal success for a team with a high payroll and high aspirations.
Wisniewski can insist that the Jackets are “not out of it yet,” but they only climbed out of the league’s basement with Tuesday night’s victory, no more. He’s new. Nash has been around since 2002-03. He knows.
“When you’re in a hole, it’s easy to look ahead and say, ‘We’ve still got a chance,’ ” Nash said. “But in here, we’re looking at the short terms.”
The Jackets still need their offensive players to produce more. They still need to play 60-minute games. Barring a miracle run to the playoffs, they still need to take a hard look at their organization from top to bottom and decide what pieces they really have and how they want to proceed.
Even Mason was level-headed Tuesday night.
“Beating a team like Vancouver, it’s a big step,” Mason said. “We just have to treat it with caution, not get too high on ourselves.”
But not getting too high is a nice problem to have for a change, and make no mistake, when you’re measuring in baby steps, this was a big one – especially for Mason.
Remember, he is only 23. He was 20 the season he won the Calder. Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard was runner-up for the Calder the next season. Unlike Mason, Howard had a veteran mentor in Chris Osgood and he’s only now hitting his stride at 27. These things take time.
As Howson said: “This is going to be a process with Steve.” Mason is still a talented kid with a 6-foot-4 frame, trying to figure it out while his team tries to figure it out, too.
“Moreso for the mental side of things, I think for Steve that was a big, big game,” Arniel said. “I think that hopefully he wakes up tomorrow and he’s feeling real good about himself and uses that as a stepping stone going forward.”