- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

Columbus rookie goaltender Steve Mason almost didn’t play Friday night. The Washington Capitals probably wish he hadn’t.

For the second time this season, Mason suffocated the Caps’ potent offense, stopping 45 shots and getting some help from a normally dreadful power play in a 3-0 victory at sold-out Verizon Center.

Washington entered the game 18-1-1 on home ice, but the Caps spent the night frustrated - much the same way they did Nov. 29 in a 3-0 loss at Nationwide Arena. Mason, who was deemed questionable before the game by coach Ken Hitchcock because of upper body muscle spasms, has stopped all 71 shots the Caps have fired at him this season.

“We got frustrated, and when you get frustrated you try to do it yourself,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You become individualistic, and the game plan goes out the window. I think a little bit of that happened today.”

Mason didn’t begin the season as Columbus’ go-to goalie, but he might have the job for good. He was the team’s third-round pick in 2006, and his status as a prospect rose dramatically when he helped Canada to a gold medal in the world junior championship last year.

The Blue Jackets recalled Mason from the Ontario Hockey League after the tournament on an emergency basis to fill in for Pascal Leclaire, who was a breakout star last season and earned a three-year, $11.4 million contract extension for his efforts.

But this season Leclaire has struggled both with injuries and his game, and Mason doesn’t appear likely to relinquish the top spot on the depth chart anytime soon. He leads the NHL in goals-against average and shutouts, and is a leading candidate for rookie of the year honors, especially with teammate Derick Brassard - who had 25 points in 31 games - out for the season with a shoulder injury.

“I know him fairly well, and he makes the saves all the time,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who played with Mason in the world junior event. “He’s got the talent. He’s big, he plays the puck awesome, his angles are good and I guess I should have expected this from a guy like him.”

Brassard wasn’t the only integral Blue Jackets player out of the lineup. Columbus was missing its top three scorers (Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius and Brassard) and a couple of other important forwards in Jason Chimera and Raffi Torres.

Heading into the game, the Caps’ injury situation was improving. Washington welcomed back center Sergei Fedorov, who had missed 26 of the past 29 games with a sprained ankle, and wing Tomas Fleischmann, who was absent for six contests because of pneumonia.

But then center Boyd Gordon’s back seized up moments before the game, and the Caps played with only 11 forwards. Gordon and Fedorov are both expected to miss Saturday’s game in Montreal.

Columbus netted the only goal of the first period, though Washington held an 18-4 advantage in shots. Blue Jackets rookie Jakub Voracek carried the puck past Alzner down the right wing and threw it toward the net.

Milan Jurcina flubbed a clearing attempt, and R.J. Umberger flipped the puck into the net at 9:27 of the period because Jose Theodore had fallen and lost his stick.

“I thought the defense struggled moving the puck,” Boudreau said. “They were having a rough time moving it and missing passes. … [Alzner] struggled, as did a lot of the players on defense.”

The Blue Jackets made it 2-0 late in the second period on a power-play goal. Theodore couldn’t stop a slap shot from the right point by Fedor Tyutin that hit Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and sneaked inside the post. Columbus entered the game last in the NHL in extra-man efficiency at 10.2 percent.

Donald Brashear dropped Columbus tough guy Jared Boll with one punch in the third period - but he also dealt a knockout blow to the Caps’ comeback hopes. Brashear got four minutes of penalties - two for holding and two for roughing - while Boll escaped unpunished.

Boll then potted his first goal of the season at 14:51 on a rebound with Brashear watching from the penalty box, and the Caps suffered their first home defeat in regulation since a 5-3 loss to Florida on Dec. 2.

“It is easy to say we were frustrated, but we still have a job to do,” said Fedorov, whom Columbus traded to Washington last February. “You have to respect the opponent and work as hard as they are - if not harder.”

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