“I mean, you can always do better,” he said following Boston’s 3-2 loss to New York on Wendesday night at Madison Square Garden. “That’s the mentality I have, at least. That’s what drives me and makes me want to get better.”
Gustavsson knew there was plenty at stake for him on Wednesday night. He is on a tryout agreement with Boston and is fighting for employment. He knows it is down to him and Jeremy Smith for the job, and he knows that with Head Coach Claude Julien intending to start Tuukka Rask in Boston’s preseason finale on Friday, this could have been his final opportunity to show what he can do.
But to him, there was no point in dwelling on that decision heading into Wednesday’s game. Not if it would interfere with his focus.
“It’s not up to me to make those decisions,” Gustavsson said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can out there when I get the chance. That’s all I can do. So far, I feel like I’ve been trying to prepare myself as good as possible for practices and games, and that’s all I can do.”
In the end, Gustavsson did just that — the best he could. He made 24 saves on 27 shots. He held off the Rangers on two of three power play opportunities. He made the stop when he had the chance, and when he couldn’t — whether it was the result of a deflection or a bad bounce — he shook it off.
“I thought he was good tonight,” Julien said. “If you look at the first goal… he can’t see much, and the other goal, I thought [there was] the breakdown there at the end, the pull and drag, and the third goal, he didn’t have much of an opportunity, either.
“I thought he played pretty well. We dominated in the shot department, but he had to make some big saves. He was good. Again, the same thing I said about Smitty — [Gustavsson] battled back, and I thought he got better during the game.
“So we’ve got some tough decisions to make, here, between those two guys.”
Earlier this week, Ryan Spooner and Brett Connolly both said they have been working hard, both in practices and in games, alongside Jimmy Hayes to develop more chemistry as a line. Judging by their first shift of Wednesday’s game, they accomplished that mission, at least to some degree.
Just 40 seconds into the contest, Connolly drove down the right wing and found Hayes on the left side of the crease. Hayes centered the puck for Connolly, who tapped it in for the early 1-0 lead.
Connolly also accounted for Boston’s second goal late in the third period. Down by two goals and with an extra attacker on, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist made the initial stop, and as the puck popped into midair, Connolly swung at it and batted it into the net.
“I think, yeah, it was good to get a couple as a line,” Connolly said. “I think that obviously, Jimmy made a good play on the first goal, so that’s good. I think me and Jimmy — we’ve been getting better every day with each other, kind of learning where each other is going to be on the ice, so for the most part, we played pretty well. So we’re happy with it.”
Particularly for Connolly — who saw limited action last season due to a fractured index finger suffered in his second practice with the team — it was a relief to finally get an opportunity to make a difference for the Black & Gold.
He has been waiting a long time.
“It was a tough year last year,” Connolly said. “I obviously didn’t play a whole lot, and you come in so excited to make a difference when you do have a fresh start.
“It just wasn’t meant to be last year, but I’m excited for this year, and playing with a couple of guys who are very excited to prove what they can do. Obviously, I have a lot to prove as well, so as a line right now, we’re hungry to be good and to have a good start to the season.”
Connolly, however, didn’t let himself or his teammates off the hook for a couple of defensive miscues in the second half of the game that allowed the Rangers to take the lead and, eventually, the win. Ryan McDonagh got New York on the board with 4:33 remaining in the second period, hammering in a shot from the right circle that deflected off Zach Trotman’s skate in front.
Less than three minutes later, J.T. Miller picked up a loose puck off the boards, carried it down the left wing and snapped it past Gustavsson to seize a 2-1 lead.
Boston’s penalty killers held New York’s power play at bay through its first two opportunities, but on their third chance, the Rangers capitalized. In the third period, Raphael Diaz dished to Rick Nash, who extended New York’s lead to 3-1, backhanding his second attempt just over Gustavsson’s glove.
“We were pretty sound defensively for the first half of the game, and then a couple turnovers and it’s 2-1, and then it’s 3-1, and then once you go down by a couple in the third, it’s tough to come back,” Connolly said. “So we found a way to get within one, but again, when you give up two goals to go down by two goals in the third period, it’s tough to come back in this league, and it showed tonight.”
The Spooner line has unquestionably improved through three preseason games, but with the regular season just one week away, Julien still wants to see more from them, particularly in their own end.
“I think offensively, again, you can see they’re creating some stuff, but they’re going to have to get better defensively as a three-man unit,” Julien said. “They’ve got to sort things out, and playing together is what’s going to make that happen. So a little mistake there — a couple of mistakes ended up costing us the game tonight, but overall, I liked our overall effort as a young group.”
Heading into this game, Julien knew his lineup was young, and he knew the Rangers planned on deploying a group that closely resembles the one they will use in their regular season opener next week.
As expected, there were challenges for Boston’s lineup, but at the end of the night, Julien liked what he saw from those young players — Anton Blidh, Brian Ferlin and Tyler Randell among them — who still find themselves fighting to leave a good impression.
“We battled, we shot a lot of pucks at the net, we were there, and we had a lot of traffic there as well,” Julien said. “So you could tell there was a lot of guys wanting to make a good impression tonight. The work ethic, and the commitment, the desire was there.
“The first period, we were all over them, and just with our skating, putting pucks in and getting on them quick and forcing turnovers — we got ourselves a lead because of that, and I thought even the second period wasn’t bad.
“But a couple of mistakes, and all of a sudden, the game changes, and [the Rangers] buried their opportunities. So we came out in the third and tried to make something of it, and we did a pretty good job there, too. So I thought our young guys did a great job of doing what they had to do. We had guys blocking shots and that kind of stuff, and getting into battles, and not backing off from anything.
“So I liked our young group’s attitude and their determination tonight.”