TORONTO – It has been a trying rookie season for Jonas Gustavsson, but he can now savour his first NHL shutout.
Making his first start since undergoing minor heart surgery for the second time this season, Gustavsson stopped 25 shots to blank the Boston Bruins 2-0 on Saturday night at Air Canada Centre. The fact he’s had to persevere through some off-ice challenge made the shutout all the more special for Gustavsson.
“I’m so happy to be back on the ice and back playing at home against the Boston Bruins and have my first NHL shutout,” Gustavsson said. “That’s not something that happens every day.”
Tomas Kaberle and Jason Blake each beat Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, a former Toronto prospect the team dealt to the Bruins at the 2006 entry draft in exchange for netminder Andrew Raycroft. Rask has been stellar this season for the Bruins, causing some Leafs fans to lament the fact he now plays for a division rival.
But Gustavsson, a 25-year-old from Sweden who signed as a free agent in the summer, is doing his best to make Toronto fans forget about Rask with some high-quality goaltending of his own.
After sitting out for eight games while recovering from his surgery, Gustavsson saw his first action Friday night in a 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, relieving Vesa Toskala. His last start came on Dec. 1 against Montreal and he hadn’t allowed a goal when he had to leave the game after one period with an accelerated heartbeat.
Coach Ron Wilson said Gustavsson has maintained focus and demonstrated some determination to work through a series of health issues.
“He’s worked really hard,” Wilson said. “He hasn’t let these medical setbacks bother him at all. He’s pretty stable and obviously has some character to have two heart ablations in addition to the groin injury he suffered. He comes back, works hard in practice with (goalie coach Francois Allaire) and I’m really glad we found a way to get him a shutout.”
Between dealing with health problems and competing with Toskala for starts, the start of Gustavsson’s NHL career hasn’t been easy.
“It was, maybe not what I expected, but you have to take it for what it is and go on and try to work hard when you get a chance to be on the ice,” he said. “There’s not much else you can do.”
Toronto (13-16-7) snapped a two-game losing skid and also ended a seven-game losing stretch against the Bruins (16-10-7) that dated back to the beginning of last season.
“We knew it was a must-win for us,” said Kaberle, noting the Leafs have struggled against the Bruins and are fighting with a slew of teams to stay in the post-season picture.
Gustavsson, though not overly busy, made a couple key saves in the second period to protect a one-goal lead. First, he denied Byron Bitz on a breakaway from close in after David Krecji hit Bitz with a nice pass from the half-boards. Gustavsson moved quickly to his left, squared up to the shooter and stopped Bitz point-blank.
Then, with Boston trying to tie the game on a power play, Gustavsson shot out his right leg to stop a low, hard shot from Zdeno Chara.
Things turned a bit nasty in the game’s late stages when Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk nailed Toronto’s Matt Stajan with an open-ice hit that did not draw a penalty. It did, however, draw the attention of many of Stajan’s teammates, who quickly came to his defence.
“I didn’t see the replay, obviously, but I thought he went after his head,” said Kaberle, one of the Leafs who chased down Boychuk. “I don’t know. It could have been a clean hit, but I thought when someone gets blood on his face, most of the time is an elbow or something. You have to protect your players and you have to go after guys.”
After initially laying motionless, Stajan shook off the hit and returned to the game.
“I was a little dazed,” Stajan said. “I saw him last-second, but all the impact is on my head. He kind of jumped at me. I’m just trying to chip it by him and he threw himself at me. I’d have to see the replays to see (whether it was clean), but I thought he jumped at me and went right at my head.”
Boychuk said he believed the hit was clean.
“I’m not going to try to hurt anybody by any means,” Boychuk said. “I tried to keep my elbow in and everything in so that it would be a clean hit. I’ve been hit like that before. The way he turned … he was really low. I didn’t see the replay, but I thought it was a clean hit.”
Boston coach Claude Julien said Gustavsson was full marks for the shutout, but thought his team, now winless in four, should have done more to generate chances.
“You can’t take anything away from a goalie when he gets a shutout, but I don’t think we tested him enough tonight,” he said.
As for Rask, he allowed a rare soft goal early in the second period when Kaberle beat him with a weak shot from the top of the circle that squeezed through on the short side.
“I just tried to hit the net, low for a rebound on the short side,” Kaberle explained. “It bounced off the post and off his leg. I got a little bit lucky there, but sometimes a shot is better than a bad pass.”
Toronto clung to that narrow one-goal lead until Blake put a shot high over Rask’s glove almost midway through the third.
Notes: One night after scoring his first NHL goal, Leafs rookie Viktor Stalberg took a high-stick from Boston’s Blake Wheeler in the second period. He returned to play with a full cage in the third. … Former Bruin Phil Kessel still doesn’t have a point against his old team in three games this year. … Defenceman Adam McQuaid played his first NHL game for the Bruins. … Toronto tough guy Jamal Mayers has a three-game point streak going. … Both teams were playing the second of back-to-back games Saturday. The Bruins will play on consecutive nights 17 times this season, while Toronto goes back-to-back 18 times.