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Jackets' Mason running into Red Wings buzzsaw

by Mike G. Morreale
COLUMBUS - You kind of get the feeling Columbus Blue Jackets rookie goalie Steve Mason is yearning for the days of regular-season hockey right about now.

The unenviable task of eliminating the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings in the NHL's second season will have that effect on you. Let's face it, countless other players and coaches over the years were probably thinking the same thing when their backs were to the wall against one of the League's model franchises.

And following an incredible 61-game regular season, which has earned him nomination for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, Mason is finding that out -- the hard way. His team will enter Thursday's Game 4 at Nationwide Arena (7 p.m. ET, TSN) down 0-3 in this best-of-7 Western Conference Quarterfinal series.

To his credit, however, the 20-year-old Mason has never denied media requests, remains humble and, in all honesty, is just on the wrong side of a series that features one team possessing an insatiable appetite to defend its crown and another making its initial postseason appearance.

"For myself personally, I knew I would be able to play at this level, but I just wasn't sure how soon," said Mason. "But fortunately for myself, I didn't have to wait long and to do this at a young age has been really nice."

While it's become apparent the Red Wings are just flat-out the better team in this series, Mason still feels the need to do his part even better. In three losses to the Wings, he has a 3.67 goals-against average and .888 save percentage. A far cry from the 2.29 GAA and .916 percentage he posted in the regular season, which included the most shutouts (10) by a first-season goalie since Chicago's Tony Esposito in 1969-70.

In his defense, the Blue Jackets haven't done much to support him, scoring just twice in nine periods.

"I don't think we're giving him the support he needs against (Detroit)," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You're not going to score one goal a game and beat Detroit."

With the exception of Henrik Zetterberg's empty-net goal to finalize a 4-1 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday, the Red Wings scored their first three goals parked right in the slot, leaving Mason vulnerable to the big play.

Despite his shortcomings this postseason, Hitchcock feels his first-year goalie remains confident.

"He deserves the Calder nomination -- he and Rick Nash have probably been our two best players," Hitchcock said. "Goalie is a really difficult position to play as a youngster and to be a starter at such a young age in this League is a real feather in his cap. It's not like he's 25 or 26 or coming over from Europe. He's really just rocketed up the ladder here to come from junior hockey, play three games in the AHL (with Syracuse) and then come up on an emergency basis and never go down again. That's pretty impressive."

Just last season, Mason went 5-0-0 with a 1.19 GAA and .951 save percentage in five games for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships and was named the Most Valuable Player and top goalie after leading the Canadians to their fourth straight gold medal. He's hoping that experience can assist him in an elimination game against Detroit on Thursday.

"Obviously playing under pressure and making big saves is all a part of the NHL but knowing that I did it in a gold-medal game is reassuring," Mason said. "The bottom line is we can't lose or our season ends. We knew playing a team like Detroit was going to be difficult and even though we had some success against them in the regular season, it wasn't the playoffs. We want to extend this series and hopefully claw our way back."

Win or lose, Mason's teammates realize how valuable a performer he has been this season.

"What can you say about the kid, he's been a prodigy since junior hockey. "
-- Blue Jackets Marc Methot on goalie, Steve Mason

"What can you say about the kid, he's been a prodigy since junior hockey," Jackets defenseman Marc Methot said. "He's stepped it up this season and won us a lot of games and we wouldn't be in this position if it weren't for him and we're obviously rooting for him to win the Calder because he deserves it."

Columbus forward R.J. Umberger, who has scored the only two goals for the Jackets in this series against Detroit, also feels the nomination is certainly deserved.

"He has a spectacular career ahead of him and is a big reason why we're at where we are right now," Umberger said. "We wouldn't be in the playoffs if not for him and he's been a bright spot in this organization. It's exciting to think what the future holds."

Contact Mike Morreale at
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