Flyers rookie defenseman Erik Gustafsson has spent his first two professional seasons learning the route between Philadelphia and Glens Falls, N.Y., home of the Flyers' American Hockey League team, the Adirondack Phantoms.
Called up five different times this season, Gustafsson had one goal and four assists in 30 games. However, each time he earned a return trip to the AHL
With the performance he had in Game 6 of the Flyers' first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he might have earned permanent residency in the NHL.
In his second game filling in for the injured Nicklas Grossmann, Gustafsson played 22:09, blocked a team-high seven shots and scored a long goal that served as a dagger to the heart of the Penguins.
"Every time Gus [Gustafsson] gets sent back to the minors, I always say that it wasn't about his play," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said following Game 6. "He never gets sent back because he couldn't cut it here or he couldn't do it. We had numbers and depth at the time and based on injures right now and where we're at, Gus had an opportunity to step in. The way he handled the minutes and his opponent, because a lot of times it was the [Evgeni] Malkins and the [Sidney] Crosbys of the world, and that's not an easy task, I thought he was … defensively, he played a heck of a game. The goal was great, he walked in and shot one, he got a big goal for us. But the game he played defensively was outstanding."
An undrafted free agent signed in March 2010 after three seasons at North Michigan University, Gustafsson has been compared favorably to Philadelphia veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen.
"He's not the biggest guy [5-foot-10, 180 pounds]," Scott Hartnell said. "He's a lot like Kimmo, how good of a position he is always in, the stick's always in the right place."
Gustafsson said he was more nervous skating out for his first second career Stanley Cup Playoff game because it was his first in front of the raucous Philadelphia fans.
But after his goal, he received a standing ovation, which calmed him for the rest of the game.
"You are so happy and you can't even describe how you are feeling," he said of the fans' reaction. "You are so, so happy, and we got the win on top of that. It has been a great day so far."
He'll need to continue having those great days if he wants to stay in the lineup, because Lilja and Kubina have intimidating size and Stanley Cup rings.
If Grossmann is healthy, it's likely he, Braydon Coburn, Timonen and Matt Carle will play the majority of the minutes on the blue line. But if the coach has confidence in a fifth defenseman, it can go a long way toward easing the burden on the big four.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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