Rookie seasons, it has long been held, come with the requisite ups and downs.
Monday was a down night for the Leafs and their rookie goalie Jonas Gustavsson
After two palatable performances as the Leafs won twice in Florida, Gustavsson endured a bad night while Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller was anything but.
That was the storyline in the Sabres’ 3-0 win at Air Canada Centre.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson turned sarcastic when asked if Gustavsson’s confidence was waning.
“Let’s put more pressure on a first-year goalie,” he said. “We didn’t expect Jonas to play more than 30 games this season. He’s going to have that many by Christmas.”
Wilson has a point. On the other side of the ice, Ryan Miller took three seasons until he found his groove. He is now one of the game’s best.
And Miller didn’t have to grapple with different sized rinks that changed every angle. Goalies need angles like the rest of us need oxygen.
Gustavsson, as is his habit, took no offence.
“Every time I play I try to be a little better,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, big rink or small rink. It’s still a work in progress to get all the angles right but it’s getting better and better.”
Most of the night, the Leafs held a wide territorial advantage against a Buffalo team that brought a gaudy 14-7-2 record into the contest.
Miller stopped all 38 shots to earn his third shutout of the season. Gustavsson faced 31 shots.
The Leafs pursued and won virtually every loose puck and skated with vigour through the night. Phil Kessel
, Mikhail Grabovski
and Niklas Hagman were particularly active.
But Gustavsson was beaten in the second when Tim Kennedy banked one off his pad and into the net.
In the first minute of the third, Henrik Tallinder’s shot through traffic handcuffed Gustavsson who vainly tried to slide his whole body to the short side.
Jochen Hecht ripped his fourth by Gustavsson midway through the third. Gustavsson looked stunned by what was an average shot from beyond the circle and later said he did not see it.
What is lacking, as much as results, is the charisma he flashed before he injured his groin and missed 20 days in October. Early in the season, Gustavsson looked as big as a house in goal and while capable of wildly athletic movement, there was an economy in the way he moved. He never guessed himself out of position.
There were some similarities in the goals. All came from players not known for their offensive prowess. Tallinder’s goal was his first of the year. Kennedy’s was goal number two. Hecht now has four.
The first two came after Gustavsson moved out of position for an instant as if anticipating a redirection. He wasn’t directly facing the shooter in a ready stance for the second.
Since he returned from a groin injury October 26, Gustavsson has not been such a scary monster and now, with Vesa Toskala due back from a minor groin injury, Gustavsson’s chance to grab the job has dissipated.
It has been far from a disaster. Gustavsson got off the mat in Florida and helped the Leafs roar back and beat the Panthers.
Gustavsson is 25 years old. He has played 15 NHL games. He remains a tantalizing prospect who has been, as Wilson pointed out, shoved to the forefront far more than had been planned or even than would have been fair.
But if you are going to celebrate the high times, you have to acknowledge the trying ones.
The Monster has lost a little roar. It will take time and bushels of work to find it.