But after leading the New York Islanders to a 4-3 comeback overtime win against the league-leading Washington Capitals, and making a game-saving breakaway stop on Evgeny Kuznetsov in OT, it’s a night he’ll never forget.
“Right now, it’s the best night of my life so far,” Gibson told NHL Tonight via arena cam after the win. “I never thought my first game would be against the Washington Capitals. Especially going to OT and winning in overtime, it’s been unbelievable.”
What’s unbelievable is the situation Gibson was thrust into for his first start. It was a huge moment, with the Islanders looking to lock up a playoff berth on the road, against arguably their most bitter rivals. The 23-year-old Finn had a whole day to think about that and was understandably nervous leading up to the game. But instead of being intimidated by the moment, Gibson handled himself with poise, showing his mental fortitude by rebounding after allowing an early goal to Alex Ovechkin.
“It was a great win for our goaltender with the way he played tonight,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said on Tuesday. “He played with a lot of confidence. Ovechkin’s first, it was a great shot, [T.J.] Oshie was screening him. Nothing you can do about it. But he regrouped, stayed poised, stayed confident, believed in himself and that’s what you need back there. I couldn’t be more pleased for him.”
After Ovechkin’s goal, Gibson told himself that there was still plenty of time to play and settled in. He made a quality stop on Ovechkin later in the period, proving to himself that he could stop the NHL’s top goal sniper. He denied Marcus Johansson on a two-on-one and appeared to be in a groove.
So when Ovechkin scored his second goal of the night – finishing a passing play no goalie is going to stop – to put the Capitals up 3-1, the trilingual Gibson told himself (in English, Finnish and French) to just make the next stop.
“When we went down 3-1 I told myself I had to make the next save and hopefully the team will come back,” Gibson said on NHL Tonight. “That’s what happened. They made it 3-2 and I knew we were back in this game.”
Thomas Hickey scored the game-winning goal 2:13 into overtime, but that moment wouldn’t have happened without Gibson’s clutch stop on Kuznetsov. Gibson stayed right with the Russian, kicking out the right pad for the save.
"In my mind I was like 'I have to stop this to keep this going,'" Gibson said of the make-or-break moment. "Luckily enough I made the save there and we won the game."
Gibson’s first NHL win was the culmination of a lot of hard work, sacrifice and patience. The Karkkila native moved from Finland to Wilcox, Saskatchewan at 15 at the urging of his coach Harri Piiparinen. He attended Notre Dame College, a well-regarded prep school on the cold Canadian prairie, and figured he’d test it out for a year, but it’s a year that wound up really testing him.
“I’ll be honest, the first two months I was calling my parents all the time, saying it’s too hard, I’m coming home,” Gibson said. “My parents told me to just stick with it and see how things go.”
Gibson won the Telus Cup that season – the Midget AAA championship — and was drafted by Chicoutimi of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He spent four years in Quebec, during which the Los Angeles Kings drafted him 49th overall, but did not sign him. Instead, he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and went on to split the 2013-14 season between ECHL Orlando and AHL Toronto, before assuming a starting role for the Toronto Marlies in 2014-15. Gibson then was traded to the Islanders on the first day of training camp in September in the swap for Michael Grabner and spent the season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, going 19-11-3. It’s a lot of moving, but it was all worth it to step out on NHL ice.
“It’s been a long and not always easy road to get there; I’m really happy that [the Islanders] gave me a chance,’ Gibson said.
With the Islanders carrying three goalies this season, Gibson had to know that NHL playing time was going to be at a premium, but that didn’t deter him from putting in the preparation in Bridgeport.
“He’s one of the hardest-working kids both on and off the ice,” Sound Tigers Head Coach Brent Thompson said. “If there’s an opportunity to get on the ice early, he’s on the ice early, doing extra, we always do extra shooting. In the weight room, he’s a finely tuned athlete. His conditioning, he takes pride in that. I think you couldn’t ask for a better kid all around. He’s got great character, a great work ethic and it’s really nice to see him get that kind of reward with his first NHL win.”
Gibson also credited the continued support from his family back in Finland for keeping him focused on his path to the NHL. He said his parents were up at 4 a.m. to watch the game and his mom didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – go back to bed after the game and went right to work.
“I’m really lucky to have all those people around me that have helped me, and of course my parents, I have to take my hat off for them,” Gibson said. “They’ve always been there and always pushed me even if they are in Finland and I’m over here.”
On Tuesday, that path was realized, even if just for a night. Like he said, his first start wasn’t how he pictured it, but now he’ll never be able to forget it.