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A Monster Performance

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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What passes for Jonas Gustavsson’s beard is in a permanent state of disrepair. He has a shy, almost sorrowful countenance and when he looks you in the eye, as he does, there isn’t a sliver of guile. He doesn’t look like he’s had enough sleep – ever.

If you were to line him against a wall in civilian clothes and ask passersby to hang an occupation on him, Gustavsson would be pegged for a performance artist (which he is) or a veteran student working on a doctorate that will always be a thesis short.

But then you see him smashing sticks, as he did in heartbreaking overtime loss to Tampa four games back or the ferocity he displayed in getting a stick on Mathieu Perreault’s shot to save the game in Washington. Ordinary early in the game, in the late going and in overtime, Gustavsson was, well …monstrous.

There is no point in doubting Gustavsson’s competitiveness. Curtis Joseph had a monster on his mask first and while Gustavsson has miles to go before people can compare he and one of the Leafs’ all-time best goalies, the two share the same gift of transformation.

Joseph’s great feature, in addition to superb athleticism, was how much bigger he got when the puck neared the net.

Big already, Gustavsson displayed that faculty against the Capitals and in a season not yet chock full of good news, the steady progress of Gustavsson is an overarching story.

First, Gustavsson has been improving steadily. His save percentage of .908 and goals against average of 2.75 are up from last year, if only slightly. But a European goalie is a long-term project thanks to all the attendant changes involved in a new language, culture, league and rink size.

There really is no comparison between the wildly flailing rookie goalie and this year’s version. Although he has always struggled with rebound control (that grievous habit returned dramatically in the Washington game) Gustavsson was much quieter and bigger in his net. He has clearly accepted the precepts of goalie coach Francois Allaire and rebuilt his game accordingly.

Like a golfer who retools his swing despite encountering some success on the pro tour, Gustavsson was essentially starting from scratch. Sometimes it isn’t pretty but the athleticism behind the Perreault save would never have been showcased were it not for a handful of less showy but still important stops that carried the game to overtime.

Health concerns about starter J.S. Giguere heighten the importance of Gustavsson. Groin injuries for goalies are notoriously troublesome so the minor tweaks endured by Giguere could signal a longer layoff.

Suddenly Gustavsson may be looking at the same situation as last year when Vesa Toskala’s wretched play and injuries forced him to start 42 games, far more than coach Ron Wilson envisioned.

Gustavsson will be counted on to gain wins right now in what is a crucial but perilous juncture of the season.

With the expiration of Giguere’s contract and the subsequent freeing up of 6 million that could finance badly-needed help up front, Gustavsson’s ascension is essential in case the veteran has to be replaced. James Reimer, a rising star in the organization, would slide in behind Gustavsson into the backup spot.

Either way, the signing of Gustavsson is beginning to look like Brian Burke’s most important move.

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