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Mason leading the Blue Jackets into uncharted territory

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Few things have gone right for the Columbus Blue Jackets since the club joined the NHL over eight years ago, but it appears that trend is about to change.

The albatross hanging around the franchise's neck is the fact that the Blue Jackets have never qualified for the postseason since entering play for the 2000-01 NHL campaign. That could all change this spring, as Columbus would be the sixth seed in the West if the regular season ended today.

Last year, Columbus finished with a then-club-record 80 points, but faded badly with eight losses in their final nine games and wound up 11 points out of a postseason berth.

So far, the Blue Jackets have avoided any signs of a late-season collapse, but it is clear that a team that has never tasted the postseason is not taking anything for granted. With nine games remaining, Columbus has 83 points, and is five points in front of the Western Conference's final playoff seed.

While the team has never delivered on the promise of making the playoffs, the one major difference in this year's edition of the Blue Jackets is the presence of rookie sensation and franchise goaltender Steve Mason.

The 20-year-old was not originally in Columbus' plans this year, but an injury to former No. 1 netminder Pascal Leclaire in early November opened the door for Mason, and he has certainly made the most of that opportunity.

With a 30-17-4 record and a league-leading nine shutouts, Mason is practically a lock to claim the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie and he could also win the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender. Only four players in NHL history have been able to win both of those awards in the same year, with Ed Belfour being the most recent backstop to pull off the feat in 1990-91.

Mason's stellar play this year made Leclaire expendable, and Columbus general manager Scott Howson elected to trade the former first-round pick to Ottawa on March 4th. Howson got a solid offensive contributor in winger Antoine Vermette for Leclaire, and Vermette has boosted the Blue Jackets with five goals and eight points in his first eight games with Columbus.

At the time of the trade Ottawa was praised for acquiring Leclaire, who is still on injured reserve, because they landed a starting goaltender who is signed through the 2010-11 season. Vermette was somewhat of an afterthought, but his consistent production so far with Columbus, combined with the fact that Mason more or less rendered Leclaire obsolete, has made the trade a win- win situation for the Jackets.

However, it is dangerous to assume that in Mason, the Blue Jackets have found their franchise goaltender for the next decade or so. Montreal GM Bob Gainey believed he found the Canadiens' savior in Carey Price last year and dealt goaltender Cristobal Huet a little over a month before the playoffs began. However, Price, who like Mason was 20 years old at the time, stumbled in last year's playoffs and has had a nightmare sophomore season for the Habs in 2008-09.

There are, however, a few big differences between the moves Gainey and Howson made. Most importantly is the fact that Leclaire was both injured and behind Mason on the depth chart at the time of the trade, whereas Huet was healthy and technically still the club's No. 1 netminder when he was dealt to Washington. Gainey placed added pressure on Price by anointing him the de facto starter via a trade.

Also, the Canadiens were the top seed in the East at the time of the Huet trade, while Columbus was -- much like it is now -- fighting for its playoff life.

With Mason between the pipes, however, the Blue Jackets finally appear poised to earn a spot in the postseason tournament.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo

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