The Monster finally has his first memorable moment with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After spending most of training camp on the sidelines, Jonas Gustavsson was sharp in his debut at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night. He stopped all 15 shots sent his way, but one will truly be remembered – a one-timer by Detroit’s Johan Ryno at the end of a two-on-none breakaway with Jan Mursak in the third period. That helped preserve Toronto’s 2-1 victory over the Red Wings.
“It was awesome,” said Gustavsson, the game’s first star. “It was so fun to play today.”
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke spent months trying to land the free-agent goaltender, making a couple trips to Europe before eventually getting his signature on a contract. As a result, the man nicknamed “The Monster” has arrived in Toronto with expectations befitting his moniker.
However, it took some time for him to see action because of minor heart surgery two weeks ago. Counting the seven saves he made in 20 minutes of work on Friday, Gustavsson is now unbeaten in three periods of pre-season hockey.
“That’s why we – and particular Brian – pursued him so hard,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “We thought he’s the best goalie not in the NHL. He’s had three periods and he’s looked pretty good.”
A couple fellow Swedes helped him out on Saturday as Carl Gunnarson and Viktor Stalberg scored goals for Toronto (6-2-0).
Brad Stuart replied for the Red Wings (2-4-1).
Leafs management will have to make some tough decisions with their final cuts of training camp, which should be made before the group heads a couple hours north to a retreat in Huntsville, Ont. Toronto opens the regular season at home against Montreal on Thursday night.
While Gustavsson will likely start the year as Vesa Toskala’s backup, there might not be room up front for Stalberg even though he leads the team with five pre-season goals. The 23-year-old believes he can make an immediate impact in the NHL.
“I think I’ve shown over the last couple weeks here that I’m ready to play,” said Stalberg. “Hopefully, I get a chance here coming Thursday.”
By that time, the pace should be a little better than it was on Saturday.
The teams were playing each other for the second time in as many nights and it resulted in a somewhat sluggish game. The first sign of real action didn’t come until late in the first period when Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan and Jason Blake – likely the Leafs top line to start the season – buzzed around the Detroit end and directed a couple of quality chances at Chris Osgood.
It was the Wings that opened the scoring soon after on an innocent-looking play. Stuart floated a shot from the point that squeezed through Toskala with 34.1 seconds left in the opening period.
Gustavsson was inserted after the intermission and wouldn’t be beat by the Wings – the same thing that happened at Joe Louis Arena on Friday. His first couple chances to experience the NHL game didn’t produce many surprises.
“It’s pretty much what I expected,” said Gustavsson. “Everything goes a little bit faster.”
A power play allowed the Leafs to tie the game 1-1 early in the second period, when Alex Ponikarovsky screened Osgood while Gunnarson’s hard point shot found the net.
Ponikarovsky was later on the wrong end of an inadvertent high-stick from Detroit’s Jason Williams that opened a deep cut near his right eye. He left a pool of blood on the ice and needed several stitches – “I didn’t count,” said Ponikarovsky – before returning in the third period.
He got back in time to see yet another big goal from Stalberg.
The speedy winger was planted at the top of the crease and tipped a pass over Jimmy Howard at 6:44 of the third period. His confidence has grown along with his goal total.
“It’s hard not to,” said Stalberg.
Gustavsson ensured that the goal would stand up as the winner.
Most of the Leafs bench was standing when he later turned away the two-on-none breakaway, a play that prompted one member of the Red Wings to joke that they had “created a legend.”
Stalberg, however, didn’t see the save until it was shown on replay.
“I was kind of caught up ice so I was just praying that he would stop it and I wouldn’t get a minus out there,” said Stalberg. “He obviously came up with a big save when we needed it.”