Steve Mason had a burning desire to prove he was capable of filling Adam Dennis' skates in the London Knights net this season.
So far, so good.
The 18-year-old Oakville native needs one more victory to surpass the OHL record of 44, which Dennis set last season while he handled the lion's share of London's net duty and his big backup served in the understudy role.
But Knights goalie coach Dave Rook feels Mason still has to account for himself in the postseason to earn favourable comparisons to Dennis as a big-time, clutch OHL goalie capable of winning the most important games.
"It might be unfair but you look at Marty Turco (who hasn't had playoff success with Dallas yet) and goalies are judged on how well they do in the playoffs," Rook said. "Steve has had a great season, but it will all be forgotten if he doesn't take the team deep into the playoffs. That's money time in hockey. Adam won a Memorial Cup and he took a team to the OHL final (three times).
"I know Steve would trade in 45 regular-season wins and the record for a Memorial Cup ring."
The busy Mason is expected to get his 62nd start tonight against the Erie Otters at the John Labatt Centre and could play in the rematch tomorrow night to close out the regular season.
Even though they're gambling with his pre-playoff health (ironically, Mason took a shot off the facemask yesterday in the innocent confines of practice), the Knights are leaning toward keeping their starter between the pipes because they still have a shot at finishing first overall.
Mason has repeated he would welcome the rest, but feels good and will play as much as the coaches want him to before the playoffs start. Forward Sam Gagner, on the other hand, is fighting a virus and could be held out tonight.
"There's pride in finishing first -- that's important to the team," Rook said. "There's pride in winning 50 games. But most of all, you want to get that one seed if you can."
It can also mean an easier playoff path and the assurance London, should it advance a few rounds, will get home-ice advantage against a worthy opponent (even though the Knights have performed much better on the road this season).
Mason has some OHL playoff experience in a relief role and is hungry to return to the league final, where he played well when Dennis was injured but suffered a couple of bad breaks against Peterborough.
After watching his performances, it's hard to believe the Knights started out worried about its goaltending this season.
"We knew he was talented and had faith in him, but we didn't know how good he would be," Rook said of the Columbus Blue Jackets third-rounder. "The difference (from this year to last year) is Steve is still two years younger than Adam was when he did this."
Dennis, now playing for Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, was OHL goalie of the year for his record-setting season. Mason was snubbed from the all-star game and missed an opportunity to crack the Canadian world junior roster when he showed up to camp injured after being railroaded in a game against Windsor.
It would be another bitter pill if he didn't cop the top goalie trophy, but Rook knows it often comes down to a numbers game.
"(Thomas) McCollum has had a good year in Guelph and (Michal) Neuvirth in Plymouth has good numbers," Rook said.
Mason's best outings often don't translate into traditional statistics. The Knights are often outshot but they rarely worry about it because they're more tuned in to keeping track of quality scoring chances.
"The one I remember early was a game against Saginaw (on Nov. 24) when we lost (4-3) in a shootout but they had 38 scoring chances," Rook said. "It was a loss, but Steve held the team in the game and that's one where I knew what he was capable of.
"As a whole, he's a pretty smart kid and he stays pretty even keel, which is what you need when you're playing 60 games in one season."
Steve Mason (2006-07) vs. Adam Dennis (2005-06)
Mason: 61 games, 44-13-1-3 record, 3,673 minutes played, 196 goals against, 3.20 goals against average, .914 save percentage, 2,290 shots, two shutouts.
Dennis: 57 games, 44-9-1-3, 3,444 minutes, 162 goals against, 2.82 G.A.A., .915 save percentage, 1,907 shots, one shutout.
Tonight: London vs. Erie, 7:30 p.m., John Labatt Centre
Tomorrow: London at Erie, 7:30 p.m.
Battle for first: Plymouth has an identical record to London and holds the tie-breaker on head-to head play (3-1). The Whalers play in Sault Ste. Marie tonight, then back home against Kitchener tomorrow night to finish the regular season.