Overlooked but most important

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:12 AM ET

T wo words will be the biggest factor in how far down the OHL playoff road the London Knights will travel.

They aren't power play. Not road record. Not special teams. Nor Pat Kane.

The two words are Steve Mason.

There has been a great deal written and said about scoring champion Kane and his sensational rookie season. There's been much made of the team's great road record. The opposition has talked about the deadliness of the Knights power play and having to stay out of the penalty box. In conjunction with that power play goes the likes of Sergei Kostitsyn, Adam Perry and Sam Gagner, All have had great seasons.

But things change when playoffs come around. Play tightens up. There's a lot more pressure and one goal or one big save can make a difference between winning and losing.

Mason may not have the best goaltending statistics, but he is the league's best big-save goalie. He's a game stealer, making the kind of save that turns around a game.

With the performances of Kostitsyn, Kane, Perry, Gagner et al, it's been easy to forget the number of times the Knights have been outshot and come out on the winning end. This team went to 13 shootouts and won 10, eight with Mason in net. The Knights went to overtime 20 times, winning six and losing only once.

That's responding to pressure because the Knights do give up more scoring chances than your average first-place team.

No matter how the game changes, how much offence they've injected into it, there is one axiom in hockey that remains the same when it comes to playoff time: Goaltending and defence win.

The Knights may have some question marks around their defence, but there isn't any around their goaltending.

That's the huge advantage the Knights have when they begin what's going to be a tough series against the Owen Sound Attack. The Knights will win, but it will take them six or seven games.

Considering Mason set an OHL record for most wins by a goaltender, it's easy to forget that his playoff experience amounts to only 150 minutes. But they were quality minutes, with 102 in last year's final against Peterborough when Adam Dennis was hurt.

It was Mason's performance in those games that gave management a hint he could really play.

"The games are a little more intense in the playoffs," Mason said. "When you get into the final, it's good for the confidence because I played fairly well there. It will help me with the added pressure in the playoffs.

"Sure, I've only played a little bit (in the postseason) but playing 62 games in the regular season gives you a lot of confidence to go out in the playoffs and do a good job."

But Mason is the most OHL playoff experienced goalie among those playing with Western Conference contenders.

The Plymouth Whalers pair of Michal Neuvirth and Jeremy Smith are rookies. Kitchener's John Murray is a 19-year-old, but has never been in OHL playoff game. Saginaw Spirit's Ryan Daniels has played 59 playoff minutes.

A goalie must have confidence and Mason has plenty. He's comfortable carrying the burden of being such a key element to success or failure.

"Do I feel pressure? Not really," he said. "I like the challenge of every single game and I'm looking forward to the playoffs.

"It's good for the confidence that the team needs me to play well to win. If I'm doing my job, the forwards are doing their job and the defence is clearing the puck, we have a good chance to go a long way in the playoffs."

Mason was the biggest weapon the Knights had in the regular season shootouts. In the playoffs, shootouts are gone and the teams play until someone wins.

"Even though it's continuous OT, with the guys we have, especially Sergei Kostitsyn, Pat Kane and Sam Gagner, we feel pretty comfortable going into overtime with those guys," Mason said.

Imagine how comfortable they feel with him.


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