Fear major motivation for Mason

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

The superlatives are flying faster and harder than shots during a Detroit Red Wings power play.

The buzz is all about his outstanding play, a record shutout streak and the possibility of winning the Calder Trophy as the National Hockey League's rookie of the year.

But shots aren't the only things that bounce off Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Steve Mason.

"Everyone in the paper keeps bringing (the Calder Trophy) up. I've played two months of the season. There's still another three or four to go. I have to keep playing well," he said.

"In a lot of ways, I'm still playing scared. I don't want to make a mistake that would jeopardize the team or my chance at playing here. I don't think about anything except the next shot."

Admitting he's playing scared would come as a surprise to anyone around Mason. The longtime London Knight and short-term Kitchener Ranger has been the talk of the NHL goaltending trade.

After making 37 saves in a 3-0 loss to Detroit here last night, the 20-year-old is 13-9-1. Heading into the game, his 1.81 goals-against average was No. 1 in the NHL and .933 save percentage was No. 2. He leads the league in shutouts with five.

He recently set an NHL rookie record for consecutive shutouts with three, going 199 minutes 19 seconds without giving up a goal.

But even the shutout streak is something Mason tries to push to the back of his mind.

"I don't think about too much. You just focus on the next day and not try and do too much," Mason said. "When you have a streak like that going, you have everything going pretty much your way. You don't want to change anything."

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"Sometimes you feel you have to do this," said Blue Jackets assistant coach Gary Agnew, waving his hand in front of his face, "to see if he has a heartbeat. Nothing seems to bother him."

Agnew, a former Knights head coach, knows goaltenders are a different breed.

"It's all like water off a duck's back with him," Agnew said. "Whatever happens, he just moves on and doesn't let it get to him."

After the Blue Jackets skated yesterday morning before their game with the Red Wings, Mason was surrounded by reporters and television cameras. His play is big news.

There continues to be a level of surprise that such a young goaltender has managed to grab the No. 1 job by the throat and run with it.

"There's a lot of hard work that's been put into it. It wasn't just this season," Mason said. "It's a long time coming. I've always had to work for my playing time really. I remember my first year in London, I didn't think I would get my shot and it was a frustrating time. But I never stopped working and that's the main reason why I've had some success. I've never just given up on something. If I have a goal, I want to achieve it."

His time in London allowed him to play a lot of games, but early in his career there, some questions about whether he could do the job remained.

"That first year in London, it wasn't a lot of fun. There were times when I wondered if hockey was the right thing for me. But I stuck with it. If I didn't, I would have been a pretty disappointed guy," he said. "I've got a lot to be thankful for right now.

"There's a lot of people who helped me along the way. It's pretty nice for me and for those that helped me."

He developed a mental toughness that has helped him early in his NHL career. He's responded well at every level he's played.

Mason had a tough mental test a year ago, when he was traded to Kitchener just before he played in the gold-medal game for Canada in the world junior hockey tournament. He backstopped Canada to a win.

Then this summer, he watched his father in hospital, fighting a life-threatening battle against blood clots caused by pneumonia. His father is better now.

At the beginning of this year, Mason was sent to Syracuse to get back in shape after knee surgery. An injury to Pascal Leclaire got him a call up. His play earned him more time and the starting job.

"When I was sent down to Syracuse to get my knee all healed up, I went down with the mindset that I wasn't going down for a very long time. In my mind, I knew that I could play if I got the opportunity," Mason said.

The Blue Jackets have a slew of injuries, but Mason's play has them in the middle of a run for a playoff spot.

"It's a pretty intense feeling in the room right now. We're right on the cusp of the playoffs," Mason said. "We have a lot of work to do . . . Not being a passenger along the way is going to be a good feeling."

Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock knows Mason is no passenger.

"He and Rick Nash (another former Knight) are the major reasons we've been able to sustain a high level right now, despite who is out of our lineup," Hitchcock said. "Those two guys have taken us and carried us on their backs. They've taken turns. Nash one night, Mase another night."

Hitchcock said Mason's play has not surprised him.

"The biggest compliment I can give him is that I don't treat him as a 20-year-old. When he goes in, I treat him as a 30-year old. We expect him to perform," he said. "We expected him to play like this. The injury to Leclaire forced the limelight on Steve more than we thought would be necessary.

"He's responded well."

It's probably nice for Mason to hear, but that, too, scoots off him like water off a duck's back.

"Right now, I'm trying to show I belong in the league for an entire year," Mason said. "Every game is like a new goal for me, to prove to them that they made a good decision."


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