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Mason douses Flames with 10th shutout

by Brian Hunter
Steve Mason has entered territory nearly unchartered by a rookie goaltender. In doing so, he helped the Columbus Blue Jackets inch closer toward making history of their own.

Mason stopped 33 shots for his 10th shutout and the Jackets opened up a five-point lead for sixth place in the Western Conference with a 5-0 win over the Calgary Flames at Nationwide Arena on Thursday night.

Jason Williams scored a pair of power-play goals while Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius contributed four assists apiece. Columbus, in search of the first playoff berth in franchise history, now has 85 points -- putting them comfortably in sixth and just two behind Vancouver for fifth.

"We have a pretty good idea that if we're in the playoffs this is a team we could be playing, so we wanted to have a good effort. We definitely came forward with it, that's for sure," Mason said.

Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres and R.J. Umberger also scored for Columbus, which handed Calgary its second shutout defeat in as many nights, following a 2-0 setback in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. If the playoffs began today, the Northwest Division-leading Flames would host the Jackets in the first round.

It would certainly be an intriguing goaltending battle, with Mason facing the NHL leader in victories, Miikka Kiprusoff, at the other end. Kiprusoff was pulled Thursday after yielding three goals on 17 shots and remained six shy of Martin Brodeur's single-season wins record with eight games left on the Flames' schedule.
"We have a pretty good idea that if we're in the playoffs this is a team we could be playing, so we wanted to have a good effort. We definitely came forward with it, that's for sure." -- Columbus goaltender Steve Mason
With only eight regular-season games remaining, Mason is an extreme long shot to break the rookie shutout record of 15 set by Tony Esposito of Chicago in 1969-70. But he did set a new Jackets' record, surpassing the nine recorded by Pascal Leclaire last season, and became only the fourth rookie netminder since 1950 to reach double figures in shutouts. Besides Esposito, the others are Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk and Glenn Hall.

Mason began this season in the AHL but got the call from Syracuse after Leclaire was lost to injury. Since then, Mason emerged not only as the team's goaltender of the future, but of its present; Leclaire was dealt to Ottawa at the trade deadline for offensive help in the form of center Antoine Vermette.

Nash and Huselius teamed up on each of the Jackets' first three goals. Malhotra opened the scoring 3:43 into the first period, redirecting Nash's feed into an open net after the captain burst into the offensive zone, cut sharply in the right circle to draw Kiprusoff out of position and found Malhotra with a backdoor pass.

"They were really coordinated today. They were really in synch with each other, which was nice to see," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said of his top unit. "Their spacing on the ice was back to where it was before. They really supported each other well. They did a great job."

Williams connected on a power play at 12:29 when he took Huselius' pass in the high slot and beat Kiprusoff through the pads, with Malhotra serving as a screen. Torres made it 3-0 at 3:04 of the second and Flames coach Mike Keenan made a goalie switch, turning to Curtis McElhinney for the remainder of the game.

McElhinney stopped 17 shots, but Umberger notched his career-high 25th goal with 5:43 left in the second and Williams struck on another Columbus man advantage 1:08 into the third to cap the scoring and give him 17 goals for the season.

"They were good," Calgary captain Jarome Iginla said. "Huselius had a great game and so did Nash. Their line was controlling things all night, creating momentum for them. They were good and our game isn't where it needs to be right now."

In a chippy game that featured 124 combined penalty minutes, the Jackets killed off all seven power plays the Flames were awarded, including a 5-on-3 for the final 1:14 of the first period after minors to Huselius and Michael Peca.

"That was probably their chance to come back in the game," Huselius said. "When we killed it off we felt that we were just getting stronger and get the momentum."

They preserved Mason's shutout in the third by surviving a double minor on Mike Commodore and a late hooking call on Jan Hejda.

"That's what I thought won the hockey game for us," Hitchcock said. "Our penalty kill won the hockey game for us today. We killed a lot of penalties today, and our PK won the hockey game. I know there's five goals, but we were in a vulnerable position and they did a great job."

Material from wire services and team online and broadcast media was used in this report.

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