TORONTO – Jonas Gustavsson is starting to show why the Toronto Maple Leafs fought so hard to sign him last summer.
The rookie goaltender outduelled Swedish counterpart Henrik Lundqvist on Saturday, turning aside 36 shots as Toronto beat the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime.
Gustavsson’s seventh straight victory was one of his most impressive of the season because it came against Lundqvist. The 25-year-old looks up to his Olympic teammate more than any other goaltender and was feeling some nerves heading into their first head-to-head matchup in the NHL.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson was able to sense that early when Gustavsson let in a couple shaky goals.
“I wasn’t sure, you know, because that is almost his idol across the way – sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad,” said Wilson. “The first period, it looked like he was nervous. Lundqvist wouldn’t be nervous playing against him.
“But certainly Jonas I’d say was the first star (of the game) because of the number of saves he had to make along the way to keep us in there.”
In the end, it was Lundqvist who showed some cracks.
After allowing Tomas Kaberle to score the tying goal from a terrible angle late in regulation, he was beaten on a Nikolai Kulemin wraparound 39 seconds into overtime. That left the mild-mannered goalie swearing in the dressing room after the game.
The Rangers are trying to chase down the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and could have used the extra point. However, coach John Tortorella gave his goaltender a vote of confidence following the loss.
“Hank’s going to be fine,” said Tortorella. “He fights, he’s a battler and he’s going to be the reason why we get in (to the playoffs).”
Toronto has long been out of playoff contention, but it hasn’t kept the team from fighting until the end of the season. The Leafs have victories in nine of their last 12 games heading into a matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.
Gustavsson has been one of the guys who has stepped up his play.
He was a hotly pursued free agent after helping Farjestads to the Swedish league crown in the spring and seems to be blossoming under the guidance of goaltending coach Francois Allaire and mentorship of veteran J.S. Giguere.
“The more you win, the more confident you get,” said Gustavsson. “It’s still hard work. You can’t just lean back and think you’re going to win just by going out there. You maybe have to prepare maybe even harder when you win a couple in a row to stay in focus.
“I just have to keep playing the best I can the rest of the games.”
John Mitchell had the other goal for the Maple Leafs (28-35-12), who are three points back of 14th-place Carolina and Florida in the East.
P.A. Parenteau and Brandon Dubinsky replied for New York (33-32-10).
The Rangers sit four points of a playoff spot and came out with some desperation, forcing the Toronto defenders into some early turnovers. Parenteau stole the puck high in the Leafs zone and beat Gustavsson with a shot along the ice at 10:25 of the opening period.
“It was a great feeling to get the chance to make up for my first goal, I didn’t get my pad down there,” said Gustavsson. “It was great for me to save those pucks in the second period and help the team.”
The score was 2-1 for the Rangers when the goalie made arguably his best save of the night, extending his left pad to deny Sean Avery on the doorstep.
It would prove to be an important one when Kaberle tied it 2-2 with a shot from the corner that somehow found its way through Lundqvist. The veteran defenceman looked surprised when he realized the puck crossed the goal-line.
“With four minutes left, you have to just throw it at the net hoping it’s going to go in or somebody’s going to get a rebound,” said Kaberle. “It’s nice to beat teams like that. They’re battling for their lives.”
The veteran defenceman is the only player left on the Leafs roster to play in a post-season game as a member of the team.
Kaberle has been extremely impressed with what he’s seen from Gustavsson in recent weeks.
“He’s been on his game, you could see it,” said Kaberle. “You feel that confidence in the dressing room and the practices. It comes to the games too. When he let’s the puck in, he always bounces back.”
Notes: Toronto is now 1-30-7 when trailing after two periods. … Avery left the game with what appeared to be an injury to his left knee … The Leafs sat out Garnet Exelby and Wayne Primeau. … Rangers rookie Matt Gilroy was scratched for the first time, getting replaced by veteran defenceman Anders Eriksson. … Phil Kessel remained at 29 goals. Mats Sundin and Alex Mogilny are the only Leafs to hit the 30-goal mark in the last 10 years. … The exterior lights at Air Canada Centre were kept off in honour of Earth Hour … Announced attendance was 19,405.