Yes, there will be pressure. Boston’s backup goaltending job is still up for grabs, and Gustavsson can make his case by impressing against a Rangers lineup stacked with NHL stars.
But when you play in the NHL, there is always pressure, no matter the circumstances or the stakes.
“Ever since you started playing pro, you always have to prove yourself out there — doesn’t matter what the situation is,” Gustavsson said following Tuesday’s morning skate at Ristuccia Arena. “You have to prove that you want to play and that you deserve ice time and all that, so that’s no news.
“I’m just going to see it as any other game, and go out and have fun and try and win the game.”
Gustavsson has had limited opportunities to prove himself in game action during this year’s camp. A few days after playing the first 30 minutes of Boston’s preseason opener against New Jersey on Sept. 20, he returned home to Detroit for the birth of his daughter.
He rejoined the team on Saturday night and, in anticipation for this start, he has made a point of tuning up in practice ever since.
“We need to obviously evaluate him and see what he’s going to do in a full game,” said Head Coach Claude Julien. “We have some decisions to make here, and we’re almost at the end of training camp. So it’s an important game for him. It’s an important game for us to evaluate, and it’s not about wins and losses; it’s about how well he performs, and how he think he can help us.
“That decision will be made fairly soon after the last game is played, and we’ll move forward with that.”
Gustavsson admitted it has been a while since he played a full game. His 2014-15 season was marred by injuries and he was limited to just seven games. The last time he suited up for a full 60 minutes was on Feb. 28 at Nashville.
But Gustavsson is ready to leave last season behind him once and for all.
“I don’t like to evaluate anything until the season is over,” Gustavsson said, “but so far, I feel healthy. I’m feeling like I can go out every day and work as hard as I can to try and be as good as I can, and I’m happy with that, and that’s how I’m going to hopefully keep doing this — stay on the ice and stay healthy and just out there and have fun and play hockey.”
With just two preseason games remaining including Wednesday’s, it is officially crunch time. Bubble players don’t have much longer to prove themselves. Gustavsson is well aware and knows he has to bring it all to the ice at MSG against the likes of Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh.
The competition isn’t a bad thing — not for the players and not for the coaching staff. Gustavsson — just like Jeremy Smith, the only other goalie still in contention for the job — must be at his best. Competition brings out the best in players who are worthy, and that is precisely what Julien has seen thus far.
“Smitty played last year in Providence, and Gustavsson has been in the NHL for quite a while,” Julien said. “[He’s] got the experience. So I think we’re in pretty good shape as far as our goaltending situation is concerned.
“We definitely have more depth and guys that are more ready now than it was at least last year.”
Rookies Eager for Opportunity
Boston’s rookies aren’t intimidated by the lineup the Rangers intend to ice on Wednesday night.
They don’t have the option of being intimidated — at least, not if they want to compete for a roster spot — but it’s a good thing they’re not.
“Obviously, it’s an opportunity for us to show we can play against NHL players and pretty much an NHL lineup,” said forward Brian Ferlin. “Obviously, it’s something you’re going to have to do during the season if you make it here. I think it will be a good challenge for us, and I think it will show we can hang in there at [this] level.”
Some of these players proved they can do just that in an exhibition win over Detroit on Sept. 26. They scored early on a veteran Red Wings lineup and held them off in overtime in order to improve to 3-0 in preseason play.
Ferlin was a part of that effort, and if nothing else, it gave him the self assurance to know he is capable of going toe to toe against a very good team.
“I think we all know they obviously have a pretty good lineup going into tonight, and we’re a younger lineup, so we’ve got to keep it simple — move our feet and play physical on them and just do similar things that we did against Detroit, when they had a pretty good lineup,” he said.
But the young players in Boston’s lineup aren’t naive, either. They know that a stacked lineup will present challenges.
“We’ll have to be aware tonight defensively,” said AHL star Colin Miller. “They seem to have almost their full team in, so it will be fun. It’s a challenge, and it’s exciting to play in those games, and it will be fun tonight.”
The trick is seeing this particular game as an opportunity, and embracing it. It is an opportunity for several players with limited or no NHL experience to show they can play against seasoned veterans who helped the Rangers claim the Presidents’ Trophy last year.
If they do that, it will leave Julien and his staff with some welcome decisions to make.
“You want to be able to evaluate those players properly,” Julien said. “I think tonight is going to be a big test. From what I know, they’ll have a pretty big lineup there, so it’s going to be a matter of our young guys showing that they can play at this level, or how ready they are to play at this level, and work hard and see where we go with that.
“But I think it’s a great way to evaluate a lot of your players that you’re kind of looking at, to see from a development standpoint — or from a roster point of view — so those thing will be probably a lot easier to look at after tonight’s game.”
Tyler Randell is a player who has been through this drill before. This marks his fourth professional training camp. He understands the importance of games like Wednesday’s. He understands that it is imperative to show consistency above anything else.
Randell has had a strong performance during this year’s camp. Now, he just has to focus on keeping it going.
“I’ve just got to keep playing the same way — getting better every game, keep playing my strong, power forward game,” he said. “Play physical, create energy, take pucks to the net, and just hopefully, my game will come.”
With just two preseason games left, many of these players are treating Wednesday’s game like it could be their last chance. With that in mind, they know how important it will be to deflect the pressure and the implications and instead keep it basic.
“Obviously, it will be the last chance for a lot of us here at training camp, so [we want to] make a good impression before they trim it down even more,” Ferlin said. “I think everyone wants to come out and make a good impression, and obviously play hard and show what you’ve got against a bunch of NHL talent.”
Chara Skates with Whitesides
For the last two days, defenseman Zdeno Chara — who is currently dealing with an undisclosed upper body injury suffered in an exhibition game against Washington on Sept. 22 — has skated alone prior to official team practices.
On Wednesday, he ramped it up, skating with Strength & Conditioning Coach John Whitesides.
Following Wednesday’s morning skate, Julien did not issue an update on Chara’s status. On Tuesday, he said Chara remains day-to-day and has not yet been ruled out for Friday’s preseason finale at Washington.
Projected Lineup vs. New York
Jimmy Hayes — Ryan Spooner — Brett Connolly
Anton Blidh — Joonas Kemppainen — Max Talbot
Zac Rinaldo — Ben Sexton — Tyler Randell
Brandon DeFazio — Alex Khokhlachev — Brian Ferlin
Matt Irwin — Adam McQuaid
Chris Breen — Zach Trotman
Tommy Cross — Colin Miller
Starting Goalie: Jonas Gustavsson // Backup: Jeremy Smith