COLUMBUS, Ohio - Not so long ago Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky were considered two of the brightest young goaltending stars in the NHL.
Now the 24-year-olds are vying for playing time—and maybe a jump start to their careers—with the rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets.
"Especially in a shortened season, the team is going to rely on two guys because the schedule is going to be so compact," said Mason, who along with Bobrovsky is prepping for Saturday night's opener of the 48-game schedule against Nashville on Saturday. "We're going to need both of us playing well in a season like this. Competition is going to be a good thing."
Coach Todd Richards isn't saying who will start against the Predators. He just knows he needs both of them.
"There's competition all over at every position—and goaltending is no different," he said. "Without question it's a great motivator."
Motivation is one thing that both goalies have been accused of lacking at times.
Mason won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2008-09, the only season the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs in their 12 years. Bobrovsky once was considered the goalie of the future for the Philadelphia Flyers after going 28-13-8 just two years ago with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. But Bobrovsky's post-season play raised questions in Philadelphia, and in 2011, the Flyers acquired former All-Star Ilya Bryzgalov.
With a combination of goalies, including Bobrovsky, the Flyers were eliminated in the second round the past two seasons. Not long after Philadelphia's ouster to New Jersey last year in five games, Bobrovsky ended up in Columbus for the meagre price of a second-round and two fourth-round picks in the 2013 draft.
"This is a big opportunity for me. It is in my hands," Bobrovsky said through a translator. "I have the chance to be a No. 1 goaltender, which is what I want."
Both must be a lot better than they were a year ago if they hope to convince anyone that they've regained the magic touch they once seemed to have. Their numbers were eerily similar last season as both stumbled through disappointing years.
Mason, who catches right-handed, had a 16-26-3 record, with a 3.39 goals-against and an .894 percentage. Bobrovsky finished 14-10-2, with a 3.02 and an.899.
To compare, Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers won nine more games (39-18-5) than Mason and Bobrovsky combined while allowing less than two goals a game. He also posted a .930 percentage.
The Blue Jackets had the worst record in the league last year at 29-46-7. Mason did play better in the second half as the club went 18-21-2 after Scott Arniel was fired and Richards took over as interim head coach (he had the interim tag taken away last summer).
For the franchise to lift itself out of the depths, it has to get better on defence. It has added several blue-liners in the past year to help that effort, including steady veterans Adrian Aucoin and Jack Johnson. But the goaltending must get better to foster any hope for the downtrodden fan base.
"Coming into the season I had a pretty good focus on what areas we had to improve in," Richards said. "That was, plain and simple, keeping the puck out of our net."
Bobrovsky is making $900,000 and Mason $3.2 million heading into this, their final season before both become restricted free agents. They know they must produce.
Mason worked out in his native Toronto with several other NHL players during the lockout.
"It's going to be a great thing for the team, having two young guys competing for ice time," said Mason, who set almost every Columbus franchise record in 2008-09. "It's going to make sure that we both bring our best stuff."
Bobrovsky was extremely effective playing in his native Russia during the lockout.
"Of course, competition is good," said Bobrovsky, a skinny 6-foot-2 left-handed catcher. "It makes you better and I understand that I have to get better every day."
So it all comes down to this: Two guys the same age out to show who's more deserving of a new contract and a place on a team that hopes to be much more competitive this season.
Everyone is keeping an eye on the two goalies.
"It's never bad to have competition within a team," defenceman James Wisniewski said. "We all want a job. Sometimes you've got to earn it and it's not always given to you. I know both guys want to play more games than the other one, but it's going to be up to them to prove that."
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