Monster Turn Around: Gustavsson Transforms From Zero To Hero for Maple Leafs

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IMarch 28, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 05:  Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defends against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Leafs 4-3.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It was Feb. 5, 2010 and the Toronto Maple Leafs were visiting the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark. With a 3-1 lead and the third period winding down, the Leafs looked poised to hold on for a victory in one of the toughest buildings to do so.

Jonas Gustavsson had looked solid in the affair, coming into the game in a slump of sorts having struggled through much of the season. The team's confidence in him was clearly shaky, and with just 3:04 remaining, he proved why in the worst way possible.

Dean McAmmond lifted a quick back-hander over Gustavsson's shoulder to cut the lead to one, and then while on a power play, Travis Zajac tied the game at three with 43 seconds on the clock.

In just two minutes, that two-goal lead was gone and so was any confidence that the team had gained in the 25-year-old net minder during the game. As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard and the game seemingly headed to overtime, the Devils broke in on yet another rush to the Leafs' goal.

A shot bounced off the pads of Gustavsson as he kicked out a leg, but directed the puck to a wide open Jay Pandolfo, who buried the rebound into the gaping net. Only 18 seconds left, 4-3 Devils.

It was the worst loss of the season for the Leafs, and their goaltender, who had battled so hard throughout the entire game, couldn't withstand the final push from the Devils, who turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 win in just three minutes.

And all eyes were focused right at Gustavsson, the prized rookie from Sweden who had such promise and potential coming into Toronto, who was now looking like he wasn't ready for the bright lights of the NHL after all.

What made it worse was that with the Olympic break coming up, he wouldn't play another game for over a month. His worst game of the season would have to sit in the back of his mind (and the fans') until Mar. 6 when he would suit up again.

The criticism rained down hard on the Monster. Fans and media alike questioned his talent level and if he really was the goalie of the future that the Leafs had been hoping for.

It was simply piling on to what already had been a tough start to the year after he had battled through a groin injury, two heart procedures, and the death of his mother—all while adapting to a whole new league and style of play.

He had only won two games since Dec. 21, 2009, a record of 2-8-3 in that time, and it was clear that there was more than one aspect to his game that needed some serious attention.

After a tough Olympic games for Gustavsson where Sweden was bounced much earlier than expected, expectations were about as low as they could be as the Leafs resumed post-Olympic play. It didn't help that the Leafs were hardly in a race for the playoffs or that they had just landed goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere in a trade.

The last thing a struggling rookie goaltender needs is a Stanley Cup-winning veteran entering the picture and taking any shot at a job he might have had. It didn't help when Giguere publicly stated that he wasn't in Toronto to babysit his younger teammate, but to concentrate on his own game.

Things did not look good for the Monster, and all signs pointed to a bad season only getting worse.

And then something strange happened once the Leafs stepped back on the ice in March. They got better. And it wasn't because of Giguere.

For whatever reason Gustavsson just started to play well. Really well.

It might have been the added depth on the blue line in Dion Phaneuf or the fear of losing his job permanently to his older, more experienced partner between the pipes. It could have been the thrill of simply playing on the same Swedish team as his childhood idol, Henrik Lundqvist.

Or maybe he was just sick of all that criticism and doubt being thrown at him from every which way.

Whatever it was, the Monster responded in a big way, and since that final-minute debacle against the Devils, Gustavsson hasn't lost a game for the blue and white.

Saturday night's overtime win against the New York Rangers was his seventh-straight victory.

He's allowed more than three goals only once while on the streak, and what might be the most impressive thing about his play is that five of those wins have come after 60 minutes are over. Two wins in the shootout and three in overtime—something that seemed impossible just a month ago for the young goalie.

In the seven wins he has a 1.30 GAA and a .929 SV%, the kind of numbers that the best goalies in the league maintain.

His overall record now is 16-13-8, an impressive display in his rookie season on a team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

He doesn't look like the same man from before the 2010 Winter Games who let out ugly rebounds, carelessly fumbled with the puck behind the net, and was caught far too many times outside of his crease sliding around. Sure, he's not perfect now, but whatever happened after that game in New Jersey changed the Monster for the better.

The team has all the confidence in the world in their goaltender now—as does the coach, who guaranteed that he would split the remaining games in the season evenly between the two Leafs goalies.

It was important for him to play well in his final games of the season, as the team decides whether or not to re-sign him and invest money long-term into what they hope is key member of the rebuild.

It now looks like he's not only proving his ability to play, but commanding respect from his teammates and opponents.

On a team that’s playing out the final games of a lost season in a way that is getting fans excited for the near future and proving the youth movement successful thus far, it's their previously maligned rookie goaltender that now looks like he could be the rock in the crease that the Leafs have been longing for since the days of Curtis Joseph.

In what began as a tough start to his NHL career, it's Gustavsson's nickname that perfectly describes the size of turnaround it really has been for the rookie this year.


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