It was only three seasons ago that Chris Mason
was manning the goal for the Nashville Predators
during the first and only playoff series of his career.
After earning his first victory in Game 1 that spring of 2006, the San Jose Sharks
reeled off four-straight victories to eliminate Mason and the upstart Predators in five games.
Mason, now starring in goal for the St. Louis Blues
after being traded by Nashville last June, hasn't forgotten. He's been waiting patiently for a chance at redemption in the NHL's second season and judging by his play of late, you have to believe he just might get it.
His four victories last week helped catapult the Blues (37-30-9, 83 points) into eighth place in the Western Conference standings with six games left. St. Louis is 12-4-1 in its last 17 games and opens April in Chicago Wednesday. The Predators (38-30-8, 84 points) are seventh and the Anaheim Ducks
(38-32-6, 82 points) stand ninth in the Wild West.
If the playoffs started Tuesday, those demons of '06 would no doubt enter Mason's head with a potential first-round series showdown with the top-seeded Sharks.
"It's a different level (in the playoffs), but the games we're playing right now are a great preparation because we've definitely been in playoff mode for quite a while," Mason said. "We've been playing tight games and most of them are coming down to the third period when you need that urgency, need those plays and saves at the end. So I think this has helped and having gone through a little touch of playoff time against San Jose (in 2005-06) helped me too."
For the season, Mason has gone 23-20-6 with a 2.42 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and five shutouts in 51 games. And to think, he was 3-13-1 with a 2.88 GAA through his first 18 games with the Blues.
So how was he able to pull it all together so suddenly? In addition to working closely with goaltending coach Rick Wamsley, Mason points to playing time as a reason for his successful turnaround.
"Getting that opportunity to play and working really hard with Rick (Wamsley) on tweaking my game a little bit," Mason said. "Once things start becoming natural instead of having to think about consciously changing one thing at a time, that's when it starts to click. It was just a matter of trying to make my game more efficient, a little more patient, but getting that playing time was the biggest thing."
Playing time is something Mason hasn't had to worry about this season as his next start will establish a personal high for games played in a season with 52.
"This is just what I dreamed of my whole life," Mason said. "In Nashville, Tomas Vokoun
was there and he's an unbelievable goalie and I knew I would never have the opportunity to be a No. 1 while he was there. Then they traded him because of financial difficulties but I never really got it going last year. Now I know how to handle the pressures of being a No. 1. The bottom line is, you're a hockey player so you just worry about playing hockey."
The 32-year-old Mason is doing just that, having made 27 consecutive starts (17-6-4) while posting a 20-7-5 mark in his past 32 outings with a .926 save percentage, 2.03 GAA and 4 shutouts in that span. During his five-game winning streak, Mason has allowed just nine goals on 135 shots.
He realizes there's no time to rest on a team gunning for its first playoff berth in four seasons.
"I'm getting rest on the off days and they're taking care of me so I'm definitely saving my energy for the games and, at this point in the season, you just find the energy, it's just there," he said. "These games mean so much and the other players are expected to do it, so I don't see why the goalies can't."
Mason feels he and his teammates have discovered the right chemistry at a critical stage in the season.
"I think (Blues forward) Dan Hinote
summed it up the best when he said we're a bunch of underdogs fighting to prove ourselves, fighting for recognition and basically fighting to get into the playoffs," Mason said. "We're hungry and we want this so bad. We did suffer some injuries this season and had trouble finding our identity as a team, but once we understood how we had to play, things really turned around and we haven't looked back. We're a very determined team."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.