Mason won't be jarred

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:03 AM ET

For Steve Mason, the spotlight grows brighter with every game he plays.

Going into last night against the Oilers, the Columbus Blue Jackets rookie goaltender led the league in goals against average and shutouts and was second in save percentage.

"He's played, quite frankly, like we'd thought he'd play," said Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock.

"He's a guy with hockey sense and whether you have hockey sense as a forward or have it as a goalie, the game is just a little bit easier.

"His common sense approach to playing goal and his ability to anticipate and read the play has been excellent. He's not going to change, he's going to have ups and downs like everybody else does, but he has the ability to read the play ahead of the curve.

"He's not surprised by the angle of a shot, he's not surprised by the change in direction, he's not surprised by the change in the point of attack."

Selected by the Blue Jackets in the third round - 69th overall - of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Mason, 20, had a 17-10-1 record with an outstanding 1.91 goals against average, .932 save percentage and six shutouts heading into last night's game.

He was supposed to play in the Young Stars game this weekend during the all-star break in Montreal, but has opted out to rest a sore back.

"Your first commitment is to your club," Mason said. "It's a great honour to be selected to a game like that, but if you're not 100% you want to make sure that you're ready to go for your team's games. Anything can happen in a situation like that (all-star game), and obviously you don't want to risk anything."

The native of Oakville, Ont., made the jump to the NHL from junior, having played with the London Knights and Kitchener Rangers last season.

He also backstopped Canada to gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships.

Mason started the year in the minors, but was called up when starter Pascal Leclaire was injured. Mason went on to win his first three starts and has since established himself as the team's top goaltender.

"It's been fun; every day, coming to the rink, is exciting," Mason said. "I don't know if I expected to have the success I've had so far, but I'm not complaining."

Neither are the Blue Jackets, who went into last night's game a point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

If they hope to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, they'll need Mason to keep playing well, something the team fully expects him to do despite his inexperience at this level.

"I think age is irrelevant; if you have hockey sense, you have hockey sense. It's not coachable, it's either there or it's not there," smiled Hitchcock.

"It's like a guy like (Ales) Hemsky. He's got world-class skill, he has patience with the puck. Somebody taught him when he was really young, No offence to (Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish), but that's not MacT teaching him those skills -- I've seen his chop shop.

"It's just something some guys have. They have that quality, so you let them run with it."

The biggest adjustment Mason has had to make is dealing with the attention he's getting from playing so well, especially when the Blue Jackets play in Canada.

"I think Steve is starting to understand the difference between sport and the entertainment business," Hitchcock said.

"He's starting to understand that when you're a good player people want to talk to you and when you're having a good year, people want to write stuff about you.

"I know there are times where he feels a little overwhelmed because he doesn't like to talk about himself at all, and he's having to do it right now and it makes him really uncomfortable. I think that's the stress level that any young athlete has to deal with."


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