Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mason vs. Rinne for NHL Rookie of the Year

Pekka Rinne on Steve Mason

Barry Trotz and Steve Sullivan on Steve Mason

This year’s Rookie of the Year competition for the Calder Trophy appears to be headed to a “down to the wire finish” between two elite young goaltenders, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Columbus’s Steve Mason.

The Calder is given annually to the NHL’s best rookie and is named for Frank Calder, who was president of the NHL from it’s inception in 1917 until his death in 1943.

Six weeks ago Steve Mason all but had cleared a place on his mantel for the trophy but a bout of mono and a Rookie of the Month performance in February by Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has the race in a dead heat at this point.

Pekka Rinne heralds from Kempele, Finland and is in consideration for the 2010 Finnish Olympic team. Rinne’s rise to the NHL was slow and steady as he excelled at every level along the way. After playing in his native land until 2005-2006, he appeared headed to Nashville after he lead Milwaukee to the Calder Cup finals that year posting a regular season 30-18 record and a 10-4 record in the playoffs.

However, in the summer of 2006, an off season attack by a stranger left him requiring shoulder surgery and delayed his return to the ice until mid season 2006-2007 when he was 15-7 for Milwaukee. Last year lead the AHL in minutes played and had a work horse 36-24 record in 65 games. This gave the Predators enough confidence in Rinne to trade Chris Mason to St Louis and start this season with Pekka as the team’s backup to last year’s playoff star, Dan Ellis.

After struggles early, Rinne did not start getting the bulk of the starts for the Predators until late December. A few bad outings early and the belief by the Preds that Dan Ellis was the man, gave Pekka a couple of months to adjust to life in the NHL before being thrust into the number one goalie position.

Steve Mason, at age 20, is five years younger than Rinne, and also had much success on the way to the NHL. An Ontario native, he was drafted by Columbus in the third round of the 2006 entry draft. He played junior hockey the last three seasons and was elevated to national hero status as he lead the Canadian team to a gold medal in last year’s World Junior Championship.

Last season ended early and this season started late for the youngster as he had surgeries on his knee in May and September of 2008. He did not play his first NHL game until November 5, 2008 when he won against Edmonton 5-4.

Mason also started the year slowly, giving up four goals twice in his first four starts. Making a quick adjustment to the NHL, he seemed to be hitting his stride in late December when he recorded three straight shutouts, vaulting him onto the list of potential Calder Trophy candidates.

Mason currently sports a 25-16-3 record in 45 games and leads the league in shutouts with eight. His .916 save percentage and 2.24 goals against average ranks him in the upper echelon among NHL goalies.

For the season, Rinne has played in 37 games for the Predators going 22-10-1 and has been the primary reason the team is still in contention. The Predators survived a two month long goal drought through the middle of the season, scoring more than two goals only nine times in 36 games at one point only because Rinne won many games with no offensive support. Rinne’s 2.22 goals against average and .923 save percentage are slightly better than Mason’s numbers.

Steve Mason was chosen to lead the Young Stars Rookie team at this year’s NHL All-Star weekend but did not attend due to his case of Mono. This opened the door for Pekka Rinne to get his first real exposure on the national stage. Rinne played well in a game not meant to be a goalkeepers friend making one spectacular shot after another. Since the All-Star substitution, Rinne has gone 11-3-1 and Mason has cooled somewhat going 8-4-1 and missed time due to the illness.

Mason and Rinne played head to head for the first time in Nashville on Thursday with Pekka clearly having the better night as the Predators came out on top 4-2 in the battle of Central Division playoff seekers. At opposite ends of the ice they were almost mirror images in build with Rinne being listed as 6’5” and 206 while Mason is 6’4” and 212 pounds.

After the game, Rinne was his usual, nicest guy in the world self, commenting on Steve Mason, “First time against him, I didn’t really thought (sic) about it too much playing against him. Obviously it’s my first year so I play against a lot of new guys, new goalies, new players so it’s always nice to challenge yourself and play against (them). This year he’s been one of the top goalies and obviously nice to beat him, but nothing more, there’s nothing personal. He’s done a great job but I’m happy to get these two points”.

Predator Coach Barry Trotz was equally diplomatic in his comments stating, “Very good young goaltender, he’s big, athletic, very composed. He reminds me of a young Carey Price, heck of a goaltender, he’s got a real bright future, and the way that Columbus plays he’s going to put up pretty good numbers”.

Steve Sullivan, proving that he is fast returning to his old form both on the ice and in the locker room, when asked about his impression of facing Steve Mason for the first time, he simply replied, “I’m 1 and 0”. Sully had earlier scored the game wining goal against Mason on a breakaway that put the Predators in the lead and moved them past Columbus into sixth place in the Western Conference.

As much as anything, if the two rookie goalies continue on the same stellar path as they are on, how their respective teams perform down the stretch will have a large effect on the voter’s ballots as they choose the Rookie of the Year. For now, it is the fans that are blessed with the privilege of watching two young goalies as they grow and become genuine stars of the future in the NHL.

Preds vs. Flyers The Predators return to action Saturday night against the Flyers at 6 p.m. (CST). Dan Ellis may get his first start in since his shellacking by Detroit on February 18 as Pekka Rinne took Friday off due to a cold. This will be the first meeting with the Flyers since several former Preds Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, and Ryan Parent moved to the Eastern Conference team.

The Preds are currently in sixth place in the Western Conference with 70 points. Columbus and Dallas are also at 70 but behind the Preds by virtue of Nashville’s higher win total. Nashville has 17 games remaining and will probably need ten or eleven victories to assure a spot in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass and The Columbia Daily Herald

1 comment:

The Hockey God said...

Pekka definitely deserves as much Calder talk as Mason. I just hope the voters haven't made up their minds already. If Columbus misses the playoffs, they'll have to look at Pekka for the award, along with Bobby Ryan. It should be interesting...