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Mason's special season helped by goalie fight

by Larry Wigge

"In all honesty, I had no idea who he was when he rattled off three straight victories in his first three starts. He stepped right into the lineup and did his best Marty Brodeur or Patrick Roy impression. He was a season saver for us after Pascal Leclaire got hurt."
-- Blue Jackets defenseman Mike Commodore, on Steve Mason

It's the first time the Columbus Blue Jackets have made the playoffs since they entered the NHL in 2000. And they've done it on the shoulders of a 20-year-old rookie goaltender.

Steve Mason has proven to be something special. He posted a 33-20-7 record with a League-leading 10 shutouts and a 2.29 goals-against average, which is second best among goaltenders who played 20 or more games.

"In all honesty, I had no idea who he was when he rattled off three-straight victories in his first three starts," said veteran defenseman Mike Commodore, a newcomer to the Blue Jackets this season who never got to see Mason in training camp because Mason was recovering from offseason left knee surgery. "He stepped right into the lineup and did his best Marty Brodeur or Patrick Roy impression. He was a season saver for us after Pascal Leclaire got hurt."

Marty Brodeur? Patrick Roy? Now that's a mouthful. But Mason's performance has been quite a lot to digest, considering he was the first rookie to post 10 shutouts in a season since Tony Esposito had 15 in 1969-70.

In his first playoff game, Mason will face the puck-possession brilliance of the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN2). And that's a pretty tough assignment.

But if there's one key element that has stood in the path of Detroit in the last five seasons -- save last year's Cup title -- it's a goaltender who stands on his head.

J-S Giguere did it in the first round of the playoffs in 2003; Miikka Kiprusoff was unbelievable in the second round against Detroit in 2004; Dwayne Roloson stopped everything in the first round in 2006, and Giguere did it again in the Western Conference Finals in 2007.

And young Mr. Mason beat the Red Wings in three of four games after the All-Star break.

Said Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash, "He reminds me of Roberto Luongo the way he closes off the whole bottom part of the net and is still big and quick enough to stop the high shots."

"I don't even look at him as a young player anymore," coach Ken Hitchcock said late in the season. "He plays with ice water in his veins, especially when he's clinging to a lead late in a game."

During a trip to Calgary earlier this season, Hitchcock was asked after a morning skate if Mason was playing. As he began to walk back to his office, the veteran coach said matter-of-factly, "Yes, he's playing tonight ..."

After a few more steps, Hitchcock added, "And forever."

Too good to believe? Well, the Red Wings stand in Steve Mason's way in Detroit's attempt to defend its Stanley Cup title. Or is it Mason that stands in Detroit's way? We'll find out soon.

Originally, Mason was told to pack for 10 days after he left the team's Syracuse Crunch affiliate in the American Hockey League. His performance since then has crunched any thought he might go back.

Confident, yet not cocky, the Oakville, Ontario, native has been a godsend to the Blue Jackets.

"I always knew I could play at this level, given the opportunity," says Mason. "I'm lucky, though, because we play primarily a defensive system. And from Day 1, the guys have never treated me as a rookie."

His fascination with hockey remains as fresh as his baby face.

Mason was a forward until he was 10. It was then he bought his first set of goalie pads with money he earned from his newspaper route. That was always his goal. His parents, Bill, a commercial real estate agent, and Donna, who works in an accounting office at a local Ford dealer, made sure their son knew the value of a dollar and following a dream. Thus the paper route money for the pads.

Mason's favorite player was always Martin Brodeur -- a poster of Brodeur hangs in his old room at home next to a black and white photo of Maple Leafs greats Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower. The color of the room? It's New Jersey Devils red and black. The family's pet schnauzer is named Brodie, but Steve insists he wasn't named after Marty.

Mason has often battled long odds to get to this point.

"I was cut from a few teams along the way," Mason said. "The worst was when I was 16. I had a coach with a Tier 2 team tell me I wasn't good enough. I found another team. And you know what? He got back to me a few months later and wanted me to play for him. I told him, 'After what you put me through, you've got to be kidding.' "

During his first season of major juniors, he appeared in just 16 games with the London Knights and occasionally was dispatched to a Junior B team in Petrolia, Ontario. The Blue Jackets scouting department probably had no idea that six months before selecting Mason in the third round of the 2006 Entry Draft, he was thinking about quitting the team.

Mason smiled, shook his head and admitted, "I was 16 years old, stubborn and things were just not going the way I wanted."

But his parents wouldn't let him quit.

At London, Mason was stuck behind a goalie named Adam Dennis, who was a sixth-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 2005. Then came a break. During a game against the Plymouth Whalers, a fight broke out that involved both goalies. Dennis was suspended -- and like the Lou Gehrig story where New York Yankees starter Wally Pipp never got his job back after missing a few games, Mason never let Dennis get his job back either.

The more he played, the more attention he got from goalie coach Dave Rook, who now works for the St. Louis Blues at their Peoria farm club in the AHL.

"Dave fine-tuned my style, talked to me about being aggressive with a touch of patience in going from post to post," Mason said.

It was Mason's NHL draft year when he was fighting to get a chance to play. All scouts had to judge him on were the 12 games he played in London. But Don Boyd, chief amateur scout of the Blue Jackets lives in London, and Rick Wamsley, former goalie coach withe the Jackets, played with Mark Hunter in St. Louis (Mark is the GM and Dale the coach of the Knights). So they had an inside track.

"We needed to be sure about what we were seeing when we saw it," Boyd said before the 2006 Entry Draft in Columbus. "Two of the OHL games I saw him start, they were 50-save efforts -- and Rick talked to the family Steve was billeted with in London and got some tape of a few of his other games."
"Dave fine-tuned my style, talked to me about being aggressive with a touch of patience in going from post to post." -- Steve Mason talking about his former goalie coach, Dave Rook
Columbus used a third-round pick (No. 69) in the 2006 draft for Mason. A few months into the next season, it was clear that Steve was for real. He posted a combined record of 37-7-3 for London and Kitchener and earned MVP honors at the world juniors while leading Canada to the gold medal.

The only setback from there was the knee surgery he had in April 2008. But Mason prefers to look back at that as only a minor setback.

"Two months later, my dad was in the hospital in intensive care of life support after blood clots formed in his lungs after he was admitted for pneumonia," Mason said. "They had to put him into a coma in hopes of saving his life. Those were a long days and nights back then.

"Fortunately, things worked out in the end. He's doing OK. But you learn to put things into perspective. You learn what really matters in life."

Dad fighting for his life. Son battling to find his career. Family sticking together and being thankful for their health.

Mason may be only 20, but stopping the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Nicklas Lidstrom is only another challenge in his career. It's not something that is going to scare this youngster who has already faced plenty of obstacles in his life and turned them aside with the ease of a 35-year-old veteran goalie.
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