Steve Mason Closes Door on Capitals - Red-Hot Blue Jackets Rookie Goalie Makes 45 Saves in Shutout

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Washington Capitals' remarkable run at home was bound to end at some point. But it wasn't supposed to happen last night, not against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a decidedly middle-of-the-pack outfit that didn't have its top three scorers.

What the Blue Jackets did have, though, was the one player capable of single-handedly determining the outcome: rookie goaltender Steve Mason, the NHL's leader in goals against average and save percentage. And for the second time this season, the 20-year-old stifled Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, making 45 saves, including 18 in the third period, to shut them out, 3-0, at Verizon Center.

The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak for the Capitals and nine-game streak on home ice, where their record fell to 18-2-1. Mason has stopped all 71 shots the Capitals have fired on him this season and recorded his league-leading sixth shutout.

"It was going to happen one day," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the losing at home. "It happens. You get snakebit. There's chances we had. There's open nets and we're missing them and not tipping [pucks]. When that happens, we don't like it. But good teams rebound from it. Hopefully we're a good team."

The Capitals can rebound tonight in Montreal, where they'll likely be without Boyd Gordon and Sergei Fedorov. Gordon suffered back spasms in warmups and did not play, leaving the Capitals short a forward; Fedorov returned from a lengthy layoff because of a sprained ankle last night and was kept home as a precaution.

R.J. Umberger, Fedor Tyutin, and Jared Boll scored for the Blue Jackets -- Tyutin's and Boll's goals came on the power play for the league's worst unit -- and the rest was handled by Mason, who was promoted from the minor leagues in November as an injury replacement and has been frustrating opponents ever since. His Capitals' counterpart, José Theodore, made 20 saves.

As good as Mason was, though, Washington did not help itself by firing long-range and low shots while generating little interference in the Columbus crease and hitting the post or crossbar at least three times. Washington attempted 75 shots in all, but 16 were blocked and 14 missed the net altogether. Ovechkin attempted 24, though only 12 were on target.

"It wasn't all Steve Mason, even though he was fabulous," Boudreau said.

Fedorov added: "Obviously, we can improve by having one guy at the net. They play so well defensively and when they have a chance to attack, all five guys move into our zone."

In the previous meeting on Nov. 29, Mason blanked an injury-plagued Capitals team, 3-0. Last night, the roles were reversed. Washington started the game as healthy as it's been in almost two months, while Columbus was missing its top three scorers -- captain Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Kristian Huselius -- as well as five others.

Ovechkin and the Capitals dominated the opening 20 minutes, out-shooting the undermanned Blue Jackets 18-4. But the visitors took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission because of Mason and a misplay by defenseman Milan Jurcina.

Umberger capitalized on Jurcina's miscue and put Columbus ahead at 9 minutes 27 seconds. Jurcina intercepted Jakub Voracek's pass through the crease, but instead of clearing the puck to a safe position, Jurcina fumbled it and ended up redirecting it to Umberger.

In the second period, Mason took complete control, and the Capitals' frustration began to show. Early on, Mason made a splendid sliding pad save of Nicklas Backstrom's shot after Backstrom accepted a pass from Alexander Semin. The rebound came right out to Ovechkin, who also was turned away with a pad stop. Later on, Mason stopped Viktor Kozlov for the second time on a semi- breakaway.

The Capitals came up empty on a brief five-on-three power play midway through the second period, then Tyutin fired a shot from the point that slipped past Theodore at 18:06. In the third, Boll added a power-play goal with about five minutes remaining.

"I think their second goal was the straw that broke the camel's back," Boudreau said. "I didn't think we gave up. We just got frustrated."

Capitals Notes: Defensemen John Erskine (concussion), Tom Poti (groin muscle pull) and Jeff Schultz (finger) were out. Poti was placed on long-term injury reserve, clearing $3.5 million in cap space and allowing the club to keep rookie Karl Alzner -- for now. Poti is eligible to be activated on Wednesday. With Schultz out, Tyler Sloan was recalled. . . .

One day after being snubbed for a spot on the all-star team, Backstrom received his second straight invitation to play in the YoungStars Game during all-star weekend. . . . Eric Fehr and struggling veteran Michael Nylander were healthy scratches.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company