TORONTO – For a few frantic moments in the third period, Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson played without his glove. And when the final horn sounded on his second career shutout, he could only watch as an opponent threw the game puck over the glass.
He lost everything, it seems, but his grip on the team’s goaltending job.
Gustavsson stopped all 24 shots he faced Thursday as Toronto pounded the Winnipeg Jets 4-0, guaranteeing himself another start in Ron Wilson’s win-and-you-stay-in goalie rotation.
“I don’t try to think so much about it,” said Gustavsson. “Just when I get the chance I try to make the most of it, have fun and enjoy it. Go out and play and try to get two points. If you do that and you play good, chances are you’re going to play again.
“But that’s no news, that’s how it’s always been through my career pretty much. Even though you have a starting goalie, if you play really well you’re going to get your chances. If it’s a competition that’s good.”
Gustavsson was barely used during a mediocre 4-6-3 December as Wilson elected to ride James Reimer following his return from a head injury. But the coach switched things up to start an important stretch of games at home and Gustavsson responded with back-to-back victories.
The Swede looked unflappable against the Jets, failing to lose his cool even when Jets defenceman Randy Jones tossed a potential souvenir puck into the stands. He even weathered the storm without his glove for a few seconds before a teammate helped retrieve it for him.
“He was solid, very professional tonight,” said Wilson. “He didn’t give up very many rebounds, especially in the situations where the shots were coming from the point. I think he did a really good job of handling some of the pucks when he needed to.”
Phil Kessel, Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur scored for the Maple Leafs (20-15-5), who moved into seventh in the Eastern Conference.
The only concern for Toronto on this night was the sight of captain Dion Phaneuf lying in a pool of blood just outside of Gustavsson’s crease. The defenceman took a shot off the side of the mouth late in the game.
“His mouth’s pretty swollen,” said Wilson. “Right now he didn’t lose any teeth. We’ll just have to wait and see what the X-rays and everything else show.”
The Jets, meanwhile, saw their record fall to 19-16-5 and dropped below Toronto in the standings.
There was very little to like about their second loss in as many nights against a team they’re fighting against for playoff position. Winnipeg was beaten 7-3 in Montreal on Wednesday.
“They skated harder, we didn’t have the puck enough,” said Jets coach Claude Noel. “We didn’t start with the puck enough and we chased them for half the game. … We had too many turnovers in our zone. We created a lot of our own issues.”
Gustavsson’s only previous NHL shutout came as a rookie in December 2009, when he stopped 25 shots in a victory over Boston. He had made 65 appearances since then.
During that span, the 27-year-old endured ups and downs with injuries and questions about his ability to handle playing at the NHL level. With an 11-7-0 record, it appears as though he’s starting to answer some critics.
“I don’t think he listens to it,” said Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson. “He just comes down to the rink every day, works on his stuff. He’s doing a great job.
“It’s always something special for the goalie to get a shutout. We just wanted to keep that zero on the scoreboard.”
Toronto dominated possession of the puck through much of the game, routinely cycling it around the offensive zone for shifts at a time.
Kessel opened the scoring with his team-leading 23rd goal at the end of a stretch like that. The Leafs sniper got a step on defenceman Zach Bogosian and tipped a Joffrey Lupul pass behind Chris Mason five minutes into the first period.
The advantage was stretched to 2-0 at 1:22 of the second period. With an extra forward on the ice and referees prepared to call two delayed Winnipeg penalties, Connolly beat Mason on a rebound for his seventh of the season.
The Leafs seemed to have all of the momentum at that point, especially with the Jets looking tired. But the tide started to turn with a series of good shifts late in the second period as Gustavssonwas called on to make a couple nice stops.
He was also a bit fortunate when Alex Burmistrov fired wide on a half-empty cage with the Leafs goalie down and out.
“Being on the road, we’ve got to find ways to start locking down,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd. “We’ve got to be quicker all over the ice.”
An early third-period goal by Grabovski snuffed out any hope of a comeback. The Leafs players were happy to put in a full 60-minute effort and move back into playoff position—even if there’s still half a season to play.
“We got caught last year playing catch-up down the stretch,” said Lupul. “It seemed like we were winning 80 per cent of our games but not making up ground on teams. We didn’t want to be in that situation again.
“It’s going to be a fight the whole way through.”
Gustavsson will be charged with leading them into battle against Detroit on Saturday.
Notes: The Jets fell to 5-10-4 away from MTS Centre. … Bryan Little and Dustin Byfuglien remain on the sidelines for Winnipeg with lower-body injuries. … Toronto scratched Jay Rosehill and Korbinian Holzer. … Winnipeg continues its road trip by visiting Buffalo on Saturday and Boston on Tuesday. … Announced attendance was 19,513.