by Dan Rosen || NHL.com
Two knee surgeries cost Columbus goalie Steve Mason a chance to play in the Memorial Cup this past spring and continue his training over the summer, his first before turning pro.
"I wanted to come into training camp with the opportunity to make the team," Mason told NHL.com, "but being injured, I didn’t have that opportunity."
That’s old news now.
An ankle injury to No. 1 goalie Pascal Leclaire in early November swung the proverbial door open for Mason, who was recalled from the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and skated through with confidence and a heck of a lot of energy.
For right now at least, Mason’s play has dropped Leclaire to No. 2 on the depth chart and relegated Fredrik Norrena to the press box on most nights.
Mason was the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for November after going 5-2-1 with a 2.09 goals-against average, .919 save percentage and two shutouts. He won his first game in December, stopping 30 of 32 shots in a 3-2 win against Vancouver.
"If Mason continues to play like this, the way the standings are and how valuable points are, we’ve got to play him," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters after Mason shut out Washington, 3-0, Nov. 29. "We’ve got to play him quite a bit."
This, according to Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson, is stunning, if only for the timing.
Howson already knew Mason had the skills to be an elite NHL goalie, but never imagined it happening so soon — Mason is only 20 and coming off multiple surgeries on his left knee.
"We expected him to be a good goalie in the NHL at some point, but we didn’t expect him to have this type of success right away, especially given the summer he had," Howson said. "He didn’t start having hard practices until the middle of October, so to have this type of success with that little preparation is surprising. For a 20-year-old playing the most difficult position in the game, that only adds to the surprise."
In Mason’s case, age doesn’t seem to matter. His junior experience gave him the confidence he could succeed at this level, and his maturity allows him to handle the responsibility he has earned.
"He’s used to the pressure," Howson said. "Playing in the World Juniors for Canada, that’s pressure packed. He can handle the pressure. That gives us some comfort."
Mason led Canada to the gold medal at last year’s World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic, going 5-0 with a 1.19 GAA. He allowed only six goals on 123 shots.
The London Knights traded him late in the Ontario Hockey League season to the Kitchener Rangers, who were looking for some stability in net on their way to the Memorial Cup, but Mason never made it that far.
He tore the meniscus in his left knee in the second round of the OHL playoffs and didn’t return. That injury required surgery, and he had to have a follow-up procedure to clean out the knee. He didn’t make his next start until Oct. 29 with the Crunch.
"Once I had time to work on my game, I was confident I could get right back in there and back to the level I was used to," said Mason, who made three starts for Syracuse this season, allowing five goals on 79 shots, before getting called up.
The whirlwind of Mason’s success hasn’t allowed him too much time to reflect on what he’s already accomplished, but he admits he’s already had a few pinch-me moments.
"I’m having a lot of fun with it," said Mason, who was anticipating spending most, if not all, of the season in Syracuse. "You work your whole life to be in the NHL and now I’m finally here."
Nobody is willing to say how long Mason’s run will last. It’s possible he stumbles and Leclaire gets his job back, but it’s also possible Mason stays the Jackets’ goalie for the next decade or longer.
"He’s got the confidence of his teammates right now and he’s got confidence in himself, and we’re not going to change that," Howson said. "I told Steve that even if you struggle it’s not going to change anything. You’re still going to have a chance to get the net. If you struggle for two or three weeks or a month we’ll look at other alternatives, but this is now past the game-by-game situation. He has shown he deserves the chance to rebound from a subpar performance, and he hasn’t really had one yet."
Granted, Mason allowed four goals in his NHL debut — a 5-4 win Nov. 5 against Edmonton — as well as four more in a 5-2 loss to Phoenix a week later. But he blanked Atlanta and Washington and allowed only one goal to Calgary. He also kept the Jackets in the game last Thursday at San Jose before eventually falling, 3-2.
"The defensemen up here are so good, so if you make a mistake they can cover up for you," Mason said. "You have to be prepared for the speed of the game. It’s extremely fast, but you have to adjust. You get used to it and it’s almost an easier game up here."
"Yeah, because everybody knows where they are going to be and they are in good position," he added. "For a goalie, that makes it easier."
Mason, though, has made life tougher on Hitchcock. With Leclaire now healthy and Norrena, who was slated to be Leclaire’s backup this season, also on the roster, the Jackets have a lot of traffic in the crease.
"Everybody wants their fair share of the net, but me being the young guy I sometimes feel uneasy," Mason said. "I feel sometimes they (Leclaire and Norrena) might be unhappy with me, but everybody has been really professional about it. Everybody understands the situation and would like it to be resolved, but none of the three of us can make that decision."
True, but Mason can make it easier for Howson and Hitchcock to part ways with one of the other two goalies if he keeps up his torrid pace.
Would anyone really be shocked if that happened?
"He has a history of not giving up the next important goal," Howson said. "He did that in junior and it would be great if he can do it in the NHL."