Steve Mason has seven shutouts on a team that has never made the playoffs before. He’s only 20 years old and although still a rookie, is probably never going back to the minors again. Sounds like another classic Cinderella goalie story…one that has to end sooner than later, right? Well it turns out that the clock may never strike midnight for Mason because he’s performing better as the season ticks down.
Before diving into his game, you have to recognize that he’s on a team coached by the defensive-minded Ken Hitchcock. The sultan of a stifling neutral zone defensive system is what brought the Stanley Cup to Dallas in 1999 and made contenders out of the Flyers a few years ago.
Regardless, Mason’s success is only slightly marginalized by this “defense-first” system. It does explain how four of Mason’s seven shutouts only called for 15, 18, 20 and 24 saves but it doesn’t explain a 45-save shutout against Washington or 47 saves against San Jose.
Next you look at his experience gained during last year’s run with Canada in the World Juniors. It was remarkable to say the least and no matter what expectations were placed on Mason’s shoulders afterwards, the boost of confidence was monumental. Mason’s big-save ability through the tournament was the icing on the cake for Columbus, meaning he was primed to get at least one chance this season.
Positionally, Mason’s skill, technique and foot speed sticks out as a rookie once you factor in his size. The most important aspect of his game that I feel separates him from other young netminders is his extremely straight and broad back, which makes it very hard to beat him up high. You will notice players trying to pick corners in a hurry on him and then hesitate or fire the puck wide. He forces shooters to think too much about aim and accuracy and that is what goaltending is all about.
But there are a few things that indicate Mason is still human – he struggles in games following ones where he doesn’t face a lot of shots. Just look at his game-by-game results and you will see that his confidence has been fragile at times. But the winning streaks have out-numbered the losing streaks, making him a bona fide starter for any fantasy owner.
Ultimately, Columbus is headed in the right direction and that means Mason should stay statistically consistent as the season comes to a close. He is capable of winning big games and combined with his display of composure as the starting goalie for Team Canada in the World Juniors, Mason quickly developed a cool and calm nature in something a lot less arbitrary – an NHL regular season game.
The real test for Mason starts today. After battling back spasms during All-Star break, it has been confirmed that he’s battling a nasty case of Mono. It’s tough to say if he’s been “hiding” the sickness from coaches and playing through it, but if he is, that’s even more testament to his durability and determination. In a league where coaches ask, “what have you done for me lately”, the biggest test comes upon his return. Will the sickness impact his timing to the point where he begins to struggle?