The London Knights hoped for the best when they replaced OHL goaltender of the year Adam Dennis with Steve Mason this season.
They got the best.
Ensuring the London net was as well-guarded as Dennis left it, Mason racked up an OHL record 45 victories, led the Knights to a fourth straight regular season crown and was named a runaway winner as the league's top goalie yesterday.
The former mates are the first back-to-back top goalies from the same team in 20 years, when Kay Whitmore (1985-86) and Ron Tugnutt (1986-87) turned the trick for the Peterborough Petes.
"It's pretty special for me after watching what Adam did last year and that's how I set my goal coming into the season," the 18-year-old Oakville native said. "Seeing what he went through and how he prepared to play really helped. I only played 13, 14 games last year but coming in this year, I knew I had to be in good shape to answer the bell and play in the 62-odd games I did."
Mason appeared in five more games and captured one more victory than Dennis did last year. There's a great chance that Mason will return to the Knights next season to defend his trophy, but that's up to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who picked him in the third round of the 2006 NHL draft.
"Being selected by an NHL team is just motivating by itself," Mason said. "It pushes a couple of doors open for you and you know you're playing for an NHL contract so you have to work as hard as you can."
The award helped take the sting out of being passed over for the OHL all-star game and getting cut from Canada's world junior team, when a head injury in the final contest before training camp ruined his chances. But those other accolades will come for Mason, who went from little-known backup to dominant force in just one season.
"(London goalie coach) Dave Rook really helped me out a lot right from the start when I was drafted by the Knights (in the 10th round three years ago)," Mason said. "Every day, we'd work on individual skills and fine-tuning my game 30 minutes before practice started."
In practice, Mason had the benefit of facing more dangerous scorers than he would ever see in an OHL game. Last year, it was Rob Schremp, David Bolland and Dylan Hunter. This year, it's Pat Kane, Sam Gagner and Sergei Kostitsyn.
"It gives you a lot of confidence when you know your team is going to score goals," he said. "It definitely helps you as a goalie to have guys like that in front of you every game."
Mason received 76 points in the voting process, followed by Plymouth goalie Michal Neuvirth with 43 and Guelph rookie Thomas McCollum with 28. Belleville's Kevin Lalande, Peterborough's Trevor Cann and Barrie's Andrew Perugini were also up for the award.
Mason is now up for Canadian Hockey League goalie of the year. The OHL hasn't taken home that trophy since Soo goalie Ray Emery won in 2002.
Right now, Mason is more concerned with helping knock off the Greyhounds in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinal tonight at the JLC. Soo coach Craig Hartsburg returns from a two-game suspension for tossing a puck into the crowd after Game 2 in London.
"It's been a good playoff so far and I don't think many people thought we were going to sweep Owen Sound in four straight," Mason said. "We lost our first playoff game (in eight contests with a 3-0 loss Tuesday) and we're going to try to come back and take what we learned from Game 4 and improve on it."
London's defence, meanwhile, is contending with injuries to Scott Aarssen and Kevin Montgomery.
Knights vs. Greyhounds
Series: London leads best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal 3-1
Game 5: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre