Steve Mason can be an imposing figure between the pipes. This past week, he's been downright intimidating to Columbus Blue Jackets opponents.
Three straight starts, and a mere single goal against (a fluky goal at that), translating into six points for the rejuvenated Jackets. Lately, getting a pea past Mason seems like a challenge for the visitors, something San Jose's Kent Huskins can attest to after the red-hot goaltender robbed him blind with a brilliant glove save in a 3-0 Columbus win Wednesday.
Mason is back to making the nightly highlight reel for all the right reasons.
"It's been good but I just have to keep it going," the sophomore netminder says of his recent string of performances. "That's the main thing. I have to keep working hard.
"Anytime you're winning, having success, you have fun. The last little stretch, we've been doing well and getting results. That's all that matters."
This 2009-10 season has been full of revelations for Columbus. One is that the line between success and mediocrity is fine.
Mason's year has been a microcosm of that point. It was always going to be tough to reproduce the Calder Trophy-winning season he put together last year, yet the drop-off the 21-year-old has experienced is hard to explain, mainly becaue little has changed.
Obviously, nobody wants to go through a difficult year but in the end, it's going to make me a better goaltender." - Goaltender Steve Mason
It's not like he forgot everything he learned on the way up the ladder. He's still the same tall, quick athlete he was in his rookie campaign. But on the biggest stages, the difference between a gratifying win and a crushing defeat can be a single mistake or an unfortunate break. And bad momentum can be hard to break.
"Earlier in the year, I wasn't coming up with the big saves," says Mason. "This recent stretch, they've been there and they've changed the course of games, keeping leads and preventing (the opposition) from getting up."
Columbus goaltending coach Dave Rook makes it clear that Mason's skill set hasn't changed. There is no question about his ability. What set Mason back was a concern with things other than stopping the puck, like the expectations heaped on him after his stellar debut and how this year would play out, particularly with a new partner in the mix. According to Rook, Mason was thinking too much and subsequently trying to do too much on the ice.
The solution involves taking a more day-to-day approach to the job.
"He was doing things that weren't his forte and it was reflective in his play," says Rook. "Part of his problem was learning to be a proper pro. He's got a better head on him now and he's figured it out. Now he's playing better.
"It's a very humbling league. You're only as good as your next game."
From a technique perspective, goalies with sagging confidence fall further back into their crease. Rook notes that Mason is a big guy and when he gets aggressive and comes out, there isn't much to shoot at, an adjustment the kid has made.
Mason's demeanor also seems to have changed following the three-game win streak.
"The first thing I see with Steve over the last couple of days is that he's been relaxed and he's had more enjoyment in his personality," says head coach Claude Noel.
"What you're seeing is the combination of his feelings and joy have resulted in good results."
Mason believes that despite some of the hardship he has endured this year, he will improve because of it. Injuries aside, he hasn't faced a great deal of on-ice adversity in his young career, one in which he has routinely taken over starting jobs, regardless of the level.
This 2009-10 season has been different. But players that attain excellence do so for a reason – they earn it.
"I'm a young guy," says Mason. "I've been through a lot this year. It's been an up and down season. Obviously, nobody wants to go through a difficult year but in the end, it's going to make me a better goaltender. I've learned how to handle things and be a better professional.
"When you have your lows, you can't get too down on yourself and when you're having things go your way, you have to keep an even keel. You have to make sure you come to the rink every day and put your best effort in.
"When you work hard at your position, good things will follow."