My apologies for posting this a few days late, but it was a very hectic week. I wanted to put most of my energy into my first “In The Cage” piece of the season, which was posted on NHL.com on Thursday. On Friday, I found an awesome new place to live in the Twin Cities.
Anyhow, on Tuesday night, I had a chance to scout the Wild vs. Nashville Predators game. Just two days after I witnessed Cristopher Nilstorp shine in his NHL debut, I wound up evaluating another backup goalie at the XCel Energy Center, the veteran Chris Mason.
Mason is a wily “old-school” goalie that I love to observe because he’s one of the few remaining “traditional” butterfly goalies still kicking in the NHL. His style takes me back to the mid-2000’s, back when things were simple and not always over-complicated.
When I watch Mason, I enjoy that there’s nothing fancy about his technical game. He has always been known to have this endearing “bulldog” mentality, one where he battles to cover loose pucks, fights through traffic to find shots, and works very hard every day in practice.
Throughout his career, he’s had to fight to earn opportunities. Because of this, he’s at a point in his career where he knows how to do all the little things that make him a perfect backup, and he has a wide range of experience playing different roles in different organizations.
With Mason not playing during the lockout, I was interested to see how he would hold up against the Wild.
To my pleasant surprise, Mason appeared to be in great shape, and also looked relaxed throughout the entire game. I saw only a few delayed recoveries, so he moved with a consistent level of energy.
From past conversations I’ve had with Mason, I know that his physical fitness was the one area he improved in the AHL that pushed him into the NHL for good, so especially at his age, it’s even more of an area of focus in terms of sustainability. That fitness level also helps him bring a high work ethic to the crease, something that his teammates really appreciate.
The only goal that beat Mason came just 6:02 into the first period on a shot from the point that hit Predators defenseman Kevin Klein in the hand, then appeared to tip off Zach Parise’s stick and then under Mason’s blocker. The play was under review, and while it was originally credited to Parise, it was later changed to Dany Heatley.
Despite the goal, Mason stayed calm and made a good save on a blast from the point by Ryan Suter (PK at 7:20), not allowing a rebound. He made another good save a few minutes later on Mikko Koivu, getting the knees down quickly while moving left to right, and staying upright with a narrow butterfly save.
One of the best saves Mason made in this game was with about 6:15 left in the second period on a chance by Pierre-Marc Bouchard (clip above). Bouchard had a great look from the top of the left cirle, and from one knee, put a good shot on goal through two bodies standing right on top of Mason. But he found it through traffic, sensed the puck trying to squeeze under the blocker, and shut it down with no rebound.
Mason continued to move with plenty of energy well in the third period, and came up with his most timely save in the game with just under five minutes left in the game. Heatley put a wrist shot on goal up high, and after Mason gave up the rebound, Heatley followed his shot and went backhand, but Mason tracked the play well and reacted with an excellent left-pad save.
It’s tough to see it in the video clip below, but I can tell you from my vantage point in the press box, he flashed out the left pad and stole a sure goal from Heatley.
He made a few more stops in the dying minutes, and the Predators held on for the 3-1 win. He finished with 29 saves on 30 shots, was awarded the First Star of the Game, and literally stole a point playing behind a “tired” Predators team, who had lost a game the night before.
After the well-deserved win, I spoke with Mason after he was done speaking with reporters. It was awesome to hear how honest he was with his game, saying that while he felt fine physically speaking, he was definitely battling some nerves early on. To know that a 36-year-old veteran like Mason was honest and humble enough to tell a scout he was fending off nerves was really refreshing to hear.
That type of honesty is an important lesson for younger goalies, because unless you’re honest with your game, it’s tough to make mental adjustments. It’s great to have pride, but there’s no sense in hiding certain aspects of your game that need work.
Ultimately, the lesson for me was one of experience. This trait allowed Mason to not over-think anything, but rather just go out there, shake off the nerves and rust early, and just battle. He found pucks through traffic, he controlled rebounds well, he wasn’t hesitant or tense, either.
There’s something special about smaller goalies with experience — like what you see with another former Thrashers goalie in Johan Hedberg. They’re unassuming, but don’t get pushed around. Their knees are closer to the ice since they are shorter, so they are tough to beat down low if they have ample quickness.
Mason and Hedberg are comparable in that regards, and furthermore, neither one has to manage an ego. They are just happy to be in the league, happy to play a supporting role, and that allows them to stay focused on what they need to do to be prepared and successful.
After speaking with Mason, I caught up with Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn and got his thoughts on Mason’s performance, and the work he’s done with Pekka Rinne so far.
“He did what is asked of any backup goalie to do; you go into a building with your team tired and you’re fresh, and your job is to go in there and help steal the game, and he did that,” Korn said. “I think Mason has the kind of personality that the team rallies around, and so I think that maybe gave the guys a little extra energy tonight. Obviously you still have to stop the puck and he did a good job doing that.”
Knowing that Korn and 29 other goalie coaches only had four days of training camp to prepare for the regular season, I asked him to explain the practice process for Mason.
“Sometimes when you get a new goalie in the organization, you can do drills to prepare them, but before you learn how they play, you can’t really help them. But the good news is that I’ve known Chris from two other stints, and know him well. We already have a relationship, we didn’t have to start a new one, so it was pretty easy,” Korn explained. “He understood also that while we were helping get him ready, that Pekka was a key component in getting the team ready. But they get along well, he [Mason] understands his role.”
Those four days likely flew by for the coaching staff, so Korn explained how he made sure to not wear Rinne and Mason out too quickly.
“I talk about energy as a savings account, and I didn’t want to deplete that savings account going into the season. So we did a little bit of a lot of things, as compared to a lot of a little. We tried to cover as many different skills as we could, but just touched on them just to get a little comfort, and then moved on to the next one and the next one,” Korn said. “The old saying goes once you ride a bike you never forget. So if you ignite their muscle memory, it’ll find itself, and that’s what we tried to do to prepare both goalies for the season.”