VANCOUVER — He’s one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL and the masked man roughly 200 feet away is arguably the best puck-stopper on the planet.
But St. Louis Blues goalie Chris Mason has no interest in making the current playoff series a battle between himself and Vancouver Canucks all-world netminder Roberto Luongo.
“That’s the kind of stuff I used to worry about,” Mason said Thursday, less than 24 hours after a 2-1 Vancouver win in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final. “But now I honestly just try and focus on the puck. That’s enough to worry about. If I start thinking about who’s at the other end I can lose (focus).”
Over the past three months, Mason has encountered few, if any, problems regarding his powers of concentration. The 32-year-old Red Deer native took over as the Blues’ No. 1 goaltender in January and started — and completed — his 34th consecutive game Wednesday.
Mason could not have envisioned this sort of success one year ago after losing his starters’ job with the Nashville Predators to rookie Dan Ellis earlier in the season. “Last year was so disappointing,” said Mason, but the feeling of dejection didn’t last long as the veteran goalie was dealt to the Blues in June, ending his four-year stay in Music City.
Mason, intent on earning his hefty paycheque with his new club, travelled to Calgary twice a week last summer to work with Tyler Love of World Pro Goaltending.
“When I got traded I thought it was a good opportunity for a fresh start,” he said. “I wanted to get off to a good start (with the Blues), which didn’t happen. It was kind of a weird beginning (to the season) but once I got the opportunity to play all the time I settled in and felt really good.”
That opportunity came early in the New Year when the Blues demoted veteran Manny Legace. Mason posted a 24-8-6 record in his final 38 starts and finished the regular season with a 2.41 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and six shutouts.
“I just go out and play and it’s the best feeling,” said Mason. “I really feel that this is the first time I’ve actually earned a starting position. When I played a lot in previous years it was due to injury or a trade. This season I feel like I’ve earned it and I’m grateful for the opportunity. You don’t always get a second chance and I’m just thankful that I did.”
Now, Mason and his teammates have to take advantage of their second chance to get a playoff win on the Canucks’ home ice. Game 2 of the series is tonight at GM Place and the Blues ‘tender suggested that creating traffic in front of Luongo will be a necessity.
“The first game was exactly what we expected,” said Mason. “They’re a tough team to play against. They have a lot of talent up front and then they have one of the best goalies in the world. We have to make life difficult for him by getting more guys to the net. There are lots of rebounds available, it’s just tough getting there.”
The Blues have a bevy of young talent with the likes of energetic forwards David Backes, T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund, but are somewhat lacking in post-season savvy.
“Last night was a tough game to play because we don’t have a ton of playoff experience, myself included,” said Mason. “With all the media attention and all the build-up, you’re thinking about the first game and when it finally arrives you’re nervous.”
But as he noted, a handful of Blues veterans did deliver a useful message prior to Wednesday’s opener.
“Guys like Dan Hinote and Andy McDonald have won the Stanley Cup and Jay McKee has been to the final,” said Mason. “One of the things that they stressed was that our emotions were going to be running really high, and that we had to stay on an even keel.”
The Blues fell just short in Game 1 and remain a confident group, Mason insisted.
“What we feel good about is that we know we can play better,” he said. “We know we can be more physical. We’re at our best when we’re physical, when we’re dumping it in and getting in there on the forecheck, and we didn’t do that as good as we can.
“Sure, it sucks to lose, but the secret is to control our emotions, to not get too high or too low.”
Contact Greg Meachem at firstname.lastname@example.org