Vokoun's injury puts Mason in the bright spotlight

Updated: April 14, 2006, 12:34 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Looking for Nashville Predators netminder Chris Mason? You'll find him somewhere between physically ill and Cloud 9, the favored spot of all Cinderellas-in-waiting.

One minute he's the guy with the shaved head and the goatee, opening and closing the door at the end of the bench, slapping Tomas Vokoun on the back when he comes off the ice, and the next he's a Stanley Cup goaltender.

Or at least that's what the Predators hope.

On Friday, Mason was at dinner with his wife, Predators netminding coach Mitch Korn and minor league netminder Pekka Rinne when Vokoun called to tell Mason he was suffering from pelvic thrombophlebitis and would be lost to the team for the rest of the season.

"He was the one who told me. It made me feel sick to my stomach. It was a bombshell," Mason said Tuesday before the Predators' 2-0 win over St. Louis. "I was sad but then, at times, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face."

Life-altering?

The day after the team announced that Vokoun, a Vezina Trophy if not Hart Trophy candidate, was gone and that the keys to the Predators' playoff shuttle had been handed to a man who'd played all of 40 NHL games and logged exactly zero NHL postseason minutes, Mason did more interviews than in the past four years combined.

The unexpected glare of attention won't diminish anytime soon.

Every day between now and whenever the Predators' season ends, Mason will be asked the same basic question: Are you ready?

"I totally understand. It's the playoffs. It's a big deal," he said.

And to be honest, he has asked himself that same question.

"You try not to think of everything all at once," Mason said. "But everything goes through your mind all at once. What if I screw up? I can't screw up."

A native of Red Deer, Alberta, who was taken with the 122nd pick in the 1995 entry draft, Mason will turn 30 on April 20, the day before the playoffs start. He knows these next few weeks will define his career.

"You dream of this all the time," Mason said, "being a starting goalie, getting a chance to play in the playoffs."

This is the classic out-of-the-shadows-into-the-limelight scenario.

In Hollywood, the story always ends with a teary celebration. Sometimes in the NHL, too.

Ken Dryden. J.S. Giguere. Miikka Kiprusoff. These are the stories goaltending coaches tell backup goalies to help them sleep at night.

But they don't always end so happily.

Scouts told ESPN.com they believed the Predators' playoff chances were inexorably linked to Vokoun's presence. Through Sunday's games, the Predators had the best record in the Western Conference in one-goal games, games won in large part thanks to Vokoun's toughness with the game on the line.

Mason, 9-5, has stopped 67 of the last 68 shots directed his way. He has worked with Korn on his positioning, on not committing too early, not getting too spread out. Tuesday's win is another piece of a foundation Mason is trying to build on the fly.

"For me, it's a definite building block. I don't want to half-walk into the playoffs. I want to go in feeling good and seeing the puck," he said.

But the sample is simply too small to conclude anything vis-à-vis the pressure cooker of the playoffs. Instead, it is about conjecture and gut feel.

The feel from outside is obvious. The Mason-for-Vokoun switch has pretty much dropped the Predators to the bottom of the heap in the Western Conference in terms of potential to survive the first round, let alone challenge for a Stanley Cup.

That's not a big surprise to Mason or his teammates.

"I'm sure people have lowered their expectations for us. I'm sure teams in the Western Conference are lining up, hoping to play us," captain Greg Johnson said.

The question is whether those expectations have been similarly lowered in the Predators dressing room.

"You've got no choice. You've got to prepare, focus and work through it," Johnson said. "We're not the first team that's had a big injury. The most important thing is to not use it as an excuse."

Let's not be disingenuous here. Mason is not Robert Redford appearing out of the mist with a mysterious lightning rod tattooed on his homemade blocker. He is a backup goalie who, before this week, had never played four straight NHL games and whose most significant playoff experience was with Prince George of the WHL almost a decade ago. But experience or not, he shares something perhaps more important with the men in the Nashville dressing room -- a bond that comes from having scratched and clawed from nowhere to be somewhere.

"For a lot of guys, expansion should be called second chance or second opportunity," head coach Barry Trotz said.

Like Vokoun, for instance.

Trotz recalled that back in December 2002, just around dinnertime before a game, the Predators traded Mike Dunham to the New York Rangers and Vokoun became a starter. Just like that. Cast off by the Montreal Canadiens, sent to the minors, forgotten, Vokoun seized his moment and became one of the top goaltenders in the world.

This dynamic is different, certainly. Mason is here through the happenstance of injury, not choice. But he is here, the door to his future suddenly opened.

Seizing opportunity is part of the Predators' identity, forward Scott Walker said.

"We kind of just keep going along. We all hope he can do it, not just for our sake but for his sake," Walker said. "That's part of being a team."

Similarly, Mason insists the reason he has worked as hard as he has is so that when this moment came along, he didn't screw it up for his teammates.

Trotz, for one, said he's more worried about what lineup he'll use every night than he is about his goaltending. The Predators -- who looked to challenge Detroit for the Central Division title but faded after the Olympic break, losing 10 of 15 through Tuesday's game -- have been crippled by injury. They entered play Tuesday with 257 man-games lost to injury and were still without Steve Sullivan and Marek Zidlicky.

"We've reinvented ourselves about 30 times this year," Trotz said.

In terms of style of play, even before Vokoun went down, the Predators were trying to promote a more playoff-ready defensive style as opposed to the all-out attack style that marked their play early in the season. That new style should provide better protection for Mason.

"So here we are preparing the way we were going to prepare anyway," Trotz said.

"The playoffs are an open door. Everything starts all over," he added. "This time of year, it's about the guys that are in that rhythm. Every year, there's a story."

Is this the spring of Chris Mason?

The Predators are about to find out.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.