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Gustavsson living up to early promise

by Jeremy Sandler
TORONTO -- Forget lions, lambs, ides and any other old sayings about March when it comes to Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson.

The only thing the Swedish rookie has done in the third month of 2010 is live up to his "Monster" nickname.

Toronto's 3-2 shootout win over Montreal at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night marked the fifth win in as many March starts for Gustavsson, one more than the four wins he had from December through the end of February.

"First of all I think we started playing better as a team," Gustavsson said after Saturday's win gave Toronto just its second three-game winning streak of the 2009-2010 season. "We backcheck even harder now, that helps me a lot. I can focus on the shooter, so I think when we start playing better that gives me self-confidence, too. We started scoring some goals, too, in the first period, which also gives some self-confidence."

It is true the Maple Leafs are playing better hockey since General Manager Brian Burke began a mid-season roster renovation with a pair of blockbuster deals on Jan. 31.

Those trades brought in defenseman Dion Phaneuf, winger Fredrik Sjostrom and goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and some more veteran shedding at the March 3 trade deadline left the Maple Leafs as the youngest team in the NHL.

Since then, Toronto has allowed more than three goals just once in 10 games, winning seven of those contests, including its first and second three-game winning streaks of the season.

But some of the credit must go to the 25-year-old who was in the net for five of those wins.

The latest manifestation of Gustavsson's increased crease presence came against the Canadiens on Saturday.

Facing a Montreal team that had won six straight games, Gustavsson stopped 25 of 27 shots to outduel fellow Olympian and star Slovakian goalie Jaroslav Halak.

Only Brian Gionta beat Gustavsson in regulation time, with the 6-foot-3 rookie making up for those two goals by stoning the Canadiens sniper in the shootout to seal Toronto's win.

"Experience and confidence, simple as that," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said when asked what is different about Gustavsson of late. "He'd only played one year in the Elite League in Sweden and last year was the first time he ever won the starting job. So it's taken him some time to just gain some experience, understand the game here."

Gustavsson agreed there has been an adjustment period since joining Toronto last summer.

"It's a big difference when you come from Sweden and play here, the timing you have to be better because I mean it's a different kind of play here," he said. "When the timing gets better, I get the chance to be in the right position and surprise the shooter more often. That's the way I want to play, I want to use my big body to try to block as many shots as possible and play as easy as possible. So that means you have to work with your skates and be in the right position all the time."

The adjustments for Gustavsson extend beyond the net to playing the puck.

More than once against Montreal, he displayed an instinct to step behind the net and keep the puck moving along the boards or swat it away from the front of the net before an incoming forechecker could be on it.

"It's more once again the timing that has improved," Gustavsson said. "I could handle the puck and shoot the puck as good now as last year but it's more it's so much less room behind the net here compared to back home. We have twice the size back behind the net so it takes a while to learn where all the players are going to be all the time."

Toronto goaltending coach Francois Allaire's work with Gustavsson has helped, as has Giguere's presence as a $7 million-a-year mentor for NHL success.

Another consideration is Gustavsson's early-season health problems getting further in his rearview mirror.

He missed most of training camp after undergoing a cardiac ablation to correct an elevated heart rate, a minor surgical procedure that needed to be repeated in December.

"Of course it's good for me now that I've been able to practice for a while without having any breaks like I had in the beginning of the season," he said. "Maybe that's one of the reasons, too."

The run of good play come at an opportune time in terms of contract talks for the goalie whose one-year, $900,000 deal expires after this season.

A pending free agent this summer, Gustavsson has already said he would like to return to the Maple Leafs if possible.

"That's one goal, but I don't think about that so much right now," he said. "This is my first season here so I'm just trying to learn every day and to just be a better goalie every day – then, after the season, we'll see what happens. But right now, just focus on hockey."

Jeremy Sandler covers sports for the National Post newspaper in Toronto

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