It would hardly seem sensible for a goaltender with a six-game winning streak and the second-lowest goals-against average in the National Hockey League to worry about a ticket to the minors.
So Bob Mason, being a sensible person, had no concern about such a fate until he learned after yesterday's practice that the Washington Capitals had assigned him to Binghamton.
"No, I didn't expect it and I'm not happy about it," Mason said. "I thought I played well here. But I guess it's not really a demotion. It's a numbers game. Whether they'll try to do something, I don't know."
What Washington might do sometime in the future is to trade one of its three goaltenders -- Mason, Al Jensen or Pat Riggin. For the present, however, the Capitals want to hang onto all three, and Mason's rookie status made it possible to ship him to Binghamton without requesting waivers from other NHL clubs.
The trigger for Mason's departure was the return on Tuesday of Jensen, who proved during a three-game test with Binghamton that he was ready for further NHL action after six weeks of inactivity caused by a pulled muscle in his left side.
"Mason had to go down, there was no choice," Coach Bryan Murray said. "He's the only guy we can send down. It was either that or keep three guys here, and three guys are not the answer.
"As other teams have learned, three goalies create problems. Nobody is happy, because there isn't enough work either in games or practice. Bob's a young guy (23), and that's what the waiver system's all about. He's going to be an outstanding goaltender. We don't want to make anyone available. Our goaltending is very good, and we want it to stay that way."
Mason had a 6-1-1 record with a 2.59 goals-against average. Only Philadelphia's Bob Froese (2.07) is better among those playing at least five games. In winning his last six starts, Mason had yielded only 13 goals and he was sensational in the third period of Saturday's 3-2 victory over Hartford.
"When you start playing, you develop confidence," Mason said. "You get more in the routine and habit of playing, instead of sitting out three or four in a row, and the more you play, the better you play.
"I'm a better goalie fundamentally than I was when I came here, particularly in my movement. Working with Warren (Strelow) I know the NHL game better. I know what to expect from the shooters and I'm able to figure the play as it develops. I've learned a lot in the last month and a half here.
"I suppose I'll be better off in the long run playing in Binghamton than sitting here, but it's not one of my goals to play there. I went down before with a good attitude, I worked hard until I got my chance and then I came up and played well. I hope I can do it again."
Mason was called up Nov. 19, after Jensen pulled the muscle in practice. A member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Mason joined the Capitals after returning from Yugoslavia and won both his starts before the numbers game placed him in Hershey until season's end.
Jensen was the NHL's best goalie over the first half of last season, before a back injury put him out of action for two months. Bothered by a knee tendon before the muscle problem developed, he has played only four games this season, with a 2-1-1 record and 3.43 goals-against average.
Jensen allowed nine goals while winning two of three games with Binghamton. He did not wish to join the Whalers, but since he had been idle for six weeks, Murray wanted to be sure that he was sound. Asked to play three to six games, Jensen requested recall after the minimum.
"Al doesn't have to prove anything to me, as to his ability to play well in the NHL," Murray said. "But you always have concerns as a coach about somebody who hasn't played in a long time.
"There's the matter of confidence, as well as the physical demands of goaltending. I just wanted him to show he was ready to play. Now he has to come through the first couple of games here and put demands on himself."
When Jensen will play is questionable, since the Capitals' only game between now and Tuesday is Friday's Capital Centre contest with Quebec. Riggin, 9-1-1 on his career against the Nordiques, will start that one.
Since Binghamton has games scheduled Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it would seem Jensen might have been better advised to stay there and retain his sharpness. However, he said that was not necessary.
"I went down to get myself ready and I feel ready, so now it's up to them," Jensen said. "Actually, I felt sharp before I went down, but they wanted me to show I was ready. I don't need any more games in Binghamton. I want to play in the National Hockey League. I'll be ready when they tell me to play."
Riggin, currently the No. 1 man, showed no concern with the current goaltending glut.
Asked if he was worried that a sudden slip might make him odd man out, Riggin said, "It can happen, but not the way I'm going now. I feel good; I never felt better. It's easy to play behind this hockey club."