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With Pronger out, Gustafsson gets his chance

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- With Chris Pronger out with a hand injury, the Philadelphia Flyers are tinkering with defensemen.

Rookie Erik Gustafsson will play the second game of his career and first since Feb. 26 on Thursday against the Thrashers while veteran Nick Boynton, claimed off waivers from Chicago shortly before the trade deadline, will sit out. Boynton has only played in three games for the Flyers since arriving, all of them since Pronger missed his first game on March 10. Boynton played 11:24 in his first game with Philadelphia, 17:54 against Atlanta last Saturday in a game in which the Flyers lost 5-4 in overtime after taking a 3-0 lead into the third period, and only 5:39 in Tuesday's 3-2 win at Florida in which he was on ice for both of the Panthers' even-strength goals. He posted an even rating in the first two games.

Boynton, 32, had been playing on the third pair with Sean O'Donnell, 39, and it's possible that Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was looking for a little more mobility on the backline with the 22-year-old Gustafsson, an undrafted player out of Northern Michigan who had five goals and 31 assists in 59 games for Adirondack of the AHL and only 10 penalty minutes.

"He's already been here once," Laviolette said of Gustafsson, who was a healthy scratch on Tuesday after being called up. "I think we got a good idea of what type of player he is and right now at this point he's had a good year. He gets up here, he gets experience before the playoff happen."

In his previous appearance with the Flyers, Gustafsson played with Matt Carle.

Laviolette said the current pairs would stay the same and that Gustafsson would play with O'Donnell while Kimmo Timonen would continue to play with Braydon Coburn and Carle with Andrej Meszaros.

When he coached Carolina to the Stanley Cup in 2006, Laviolette often used seven defensemen. He said at this point he has not considered that option.

In the Flyers' most recent game, Laviolette placed a heavy load on his top four, as O'Donnell played only 9:34 to go with Boynton's paltry five-plus minutes. Coburn played the fewest minutes of the top four at 22:59 while Meszaros and Carle each logged more than 26 minutes.

Nonetheless, Laviolette said he was unconcerned by that heavy workload.

"Not at this point, no," he said. "I think it's important to make sure we're ready for the playoffs."

Gustafsson was excited by the opportunity, though he said he had no idea how long it would last.

"I'm really grateful to be here, first of all," he said. "It's a dream come true when you get the call. Got to make the most of it. I've been working hard all year and I feel that I can have an impact and hopefully help the team.

"It's kind of weird, actually, just a year ago I'm playing college hockey and now I'm sitting here. I'm really thankful for it. Just want to make the most of it."

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Gustafsson is fairly small for an NHL defenseman -- not to mention a Flyers defenseman, though Timonen is the same height but weighs almost 15 pounds more.

"It's a dream come true when you get the call. Got to make the most of it. I've been working hard all year and I feel that I can have an impact and hopefully help the team." -- Erik Gustafsson

That makes Gustafsson virtually the same size as Thrashers' all-star defenseman Tobias Enstrom, a fellow Swede. Gustafsson said he does not know Enstrom but has watched him ever since he came to North America after a Northern Michigan assistant coach spotted him at a camp for Sweden's World Junior team and offered him a scholarship on the spot. He had no other options, wanted to come to North American and jumped at the chance.

"I'm trying to adapt my game after smaller defensemen in the League and what they do since they're so successful," Gustaffson said.

He said going to Northern Michigan was "my best decision in my whole life."

While studying business entrepreneurship he piled up 86 assists in 123 NCAA games.

Flyers scout Ross Fitzpatrick spotted him and the organization offered him a contract. Now, he has a chance to play for a team that advanced to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final last year.

He was asked what Laviolette had told him.

"Just step out there and play my game," he said. "Play the same game as I have been for the Phantoms all year. That's what took me here and that's what I'm going to try to do."
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