It's a safe bet that Chris Mason will not win the Vezina Trophy. He doesn't have the front-running stats of Boston's Tim Thomas or the new-guy success and impressive shutout total (10) of Steve Mason (no relation) in Columbus. He's nowhere near the wins total of Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff (43) and he's not always in the top five in any of the usual judgment day categories (save percentage, goals-against average, wins, shutouts, minutes played) that general managers fiddle with when filling out their ballots.
Mason is also likely to lose out in the confusion derby since he and Steve both play in the same division, and in the name recognition game, Chris isn't registering anywhere outside of St. Louis these days. That confuses me. Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago -- his 27th consecutive start -- notwithstanding, he's been a savior for the Blues.
That 26-save outing in a 5-2 showdown with Steve Mason on Sunday was his 23rd win of the season. It also completed a home-and-home sweep of the Blue Jackets, a combo-win that kept what was expected to be an NHL also-ran in the race for a playoff spot in the freakishly competitive West. It's part of a run that has pushed Mason into the inner circle of goalies who make a difference when much-needed points are on the line.
The Blues started the season poorly and, because of injuries, things got progressively worse. By mid-January, they were scrapping for every advantage and point with a physical, grind-it-out style of play that isn't always a joy to watch, but it wins games. In that time, Mason, who started the season as a backup to the (literally) free-falling Manny Legace, rose to the head of his class.
Since a shootout win vs. Boston on January 19, Mason has a 2.03 GAA -- a number as good as any netminder's (Thomas has led virtually all season with a cumulative 2.13 while Mason has cut his overall GAA down to 2.43). His save percentage of .916 has him outside the top 10, but it's a healthy .926 when measured from that Jan. 19 game on.
After the Columbus games, Chris had surpassed Steve as the hot topic in the goalie ranks. He was 4-0-0 last week, an achievement that earned him "First Star" honors from the NHL. It also lifted the Blues to a 37-30-9 record. The very fact that they are in the postseason mix is largely a tribute to his play.
As late as Feb. 24, the Blues were 14th in the 15-team conference but they went 11-5-1 to claw back into contention. They are one point behind another surprising team, the Nashville Predators, who are tied with Anaheim (84 points). The Blues would appear to have the tougher schedule with four of their final five games on the road, but Mason seems equal to the task.
"I'm getting good rest on the off days," he said in a conference call earlier this week. "So I'm definitely saving my energy for the games. When you go out on the ice and you're playing these games that mean so much, you just find the energy. All of the other players are expected to do it, so I don't see why the goalies can't, too."
Mason wasn't expected to be in this position at this point of the season. The Blues had made a commitment to the veteran Legace, but he was injured when he slipped on loose carpeting set on the ice to accommodate then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin for a ceremonial faceoff. Legace was slow to recover, slower still to rediscover his NHL game, and is now in the minors. Mason had been obtained as insurance from Nashville, where he spent four years trying to emerge from the shadow of Tomas Vokoun, in an off-season deal for a fourth-round draft pick. He didn't appear to be anything akin to a savior and had a seven-game losing streak going when he was asked to step up.
The Blues had made other moves, including obtaining center Andy McDonald from the Ducks, but it was Mason who came quickly to the forefront.
"I think the games we are playing right now are a great preparation (for the postseason)," he said. "We have definitely been in playoff mode for quite a while. Most of our games are one-goal games and they are coming down to the third period where you need that urgency. You need those plays and saves at the end of the game."
Not all teams get them, especially the ones who are at the bottom of a conference's standings in late February, but Mason said both he and his teammates have set the bar high and are driven to clear it.
"I think we are a bunch of underdogs in that room, and we are fighting to prove ourselves. We are fighting for recognition, and basically to get in the playoffs. That's our goal, and we are hungry and we want this so bad."
Blues coach Andy Murray has worked a political upheaval of sorts by moving the team to a tight, conservative style where shooters are kept to the outside and scoring chances are held to a minimum. The trickle-down is that Mason has been able to see the shots, and almost any goalie will tell you that he can stop a lot of what he sees. Mason has been seeing everything clearly of late.
It likely won't lead to the Vezina, of course, but if the Blues get to the postseason, Mason will no longer be confused with the kid in Columbus.