The sophomore slump.
It is a phenomenon so common that it has secured a place in the annals of sports jargon. Many have tried to explain it and failed. Much like crop circles or déjà vu, it is just accepted as a truism.
How many people had their fantasy football seasons ruined by the second-year failings of Matt Forte or Steve Slaton? How often have you heard the resident hipsters at the coffee shop lambasting some lame indie band’s second album? Have you ever even heard of the wretched film “The Postman?” That was Kevin Costner’s second directorial endeavor after the Oscar-winning “Dances With Wolves.”
So any attempts to explain it away as a regression toward the mean or increased expectations are mere lip service. It just simply is.
After a fantastic season that saw him take home NHL Rookie of the Year honors, Steve Mason has most definitely hit the sophomore slump.
Through 47 games this season, he has posted an 11-15-6-2 record while fielding a 3.31 goals against average. That stands in contrast to the 33-20-7-10 record he compiled in the Blue Jackets’ run to the playoffs last year. His GAA was an entire goal less during that campaign, at 2.29.
His save percentage (.890) has him 47th out of 48 goalies in the NHL.
During last week’s game in Vancouver, Mason was pulled in the second period by Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock after giving up six goals on 17 shots. Columbus leads the NHL in mid-game goalie switches and Mason has started six of seven of those contests.
Some have speculated that his conditioning is in question. Like a running back with too many carries, he might have been overworked during his rookie season.
General manager Scott Howson was asked whether or not Mason reported to camp in optimal condition.
“Probably not,” Howson said of his goalie. “I think he worked in the summer, but is he more like a 20-year-old or a 25-year-old? No, he’s like a 20-year-old.”
Howson went on to explain that it might have been in part because of how much work he received last season.
“He got a little taste of it last year because he complained how tired his legs were,” Howson said. “It was unfair how much we played him last season. I think he put some time in, but it probably wasn’t enough and he will learn from that.”
While he was learning, however, the Jackets were stuck in a terrible slump until this week’s recent winning streak. One of the primary reasons for the Jackets’ emergence from the slump is Mason’s replacement, Mathieu Garon.
In Sunday’s victory over the Dallas Stars, Garon earned his 16th career shutout while making 26 saves. He was named first star of the game and also was recognized by the league as one of the “Three Stars” of the week.
His GAA is 2.55 while maintaining a .909 save percentage.
Hitchcock has shifted strategies with his goaltenders many times this season in an effort to stop the bleeding. At one point he declared a “win and in” approach. If you’re the goaltender for a victory, you’ve earned the start in the next game.
Garon’s description of a sequence during the Dallas game sums up the mindset needed to weather the storm.
In detailing how he was able to withstand a barrage of Stars’ shots in the second period, Garon offered this perspective,
“You have to be patient and not panic,” Garon said. “Earlier this year, we would have panicked.”
Garon was talking about a short, 25-second sequence of one game in an 82-game season, but when the league’s reigning Rookie of the Year is struggling mightily, it was a microcosm of the season thus far.
So while Mason works his way out of his sophomore slump, it sounds like the Jackets have found his replacement.
With the hole they’ve dug for themselves, they’ll need him.