DETROIT – After leading Farjestad to the Swedish Elite League title in 2008-09, Jonas Gustavsson’s coach used one word to describe the 6-foot-3 goaltender: Monster.
The nickname stuck.
“My last year in Sweden during the playoffs,” Gustavsson said, “I had a pretty good run and I think he talked to the media and said I played like a monster or something like that.”
To call Gustavsson’s playoff run in Sweden “pretty good” is quite an understatement. The goaltender was the SEL’s top goaltender that season, posting the league’s best goals against average (1.96) and save percentage (.932). The Danderyd, Sweden native’s numbers only improved in the playoffs (1.03 GAA, .961 save percentage), and he earned five shutouts and only allowed 14 goals in 13 postseason games.
Gustavsson was also named the playoff MVP after winning the league championship, and news of the Monster spread across the Atlantic Ocean quickly when he signed a one-year free agent contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009.
“The media started calling me the Monster over there and then when I signed over here I was surprised that the media knew about it over here because it was in Swedish the Monster,” Gustavsson said.
Gustavsson spent three years with the Maple leafs, posting a 39-45-15 record, before signing a two-year contract with the Red Wings on July 1, 2012.
On Saturday, the Monster returns to the Air Canada Centre for the first time since his departure as the Maple Leafs host the Red Wings, marking the first time the goaltender has ever faced one of his former teams in his hockey career.
“It’s exciting,” Gustavsson said. “Three years there. I know a lot of people there. It’s going to be fun to go back there.
“It was my first few years over here, so it was a lot of learning. Obviously, we didn’t make the playoffs. That was a disappointment. For myself, right away I got a chance to play a lot of games, get some experience. That was really good for me. I had some good stretches and not so good stretches. It was a learning period for me.”
The 29-year-old has a 9-3-2 record as the backup to the Red Wings No. 1 netminder Jimmy Howard this season, and has started between the pipes in nine of Detroit’s last 13 contests, notching his latest win in a 3-2 overtime victory over Calgary Thursday night.
“He’s played very well for us, say what you want, but he’s been great,” Wings forward Daniel Cleary said. “Even last night he made some big stops for us to keep the game tied. Good for him. He’s battled a lot of different things the last couple of years. It’ll be good. When you go play your old team you want to play well.”
While Gustavsson is looking forward to his return to Toronto, once the puck drops, it will be all business.
“It’s more before the game you see a lot more familiar faces,” he said. “When the game starts, I don’t think I’m going to think about it. You watch the puck and try to compete. You go with your instincts.”
The matchup will serve as a preview for the upcoming Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, rekindling an Original Six rivalry that now has playoff implications with Detroit’s addition to the Eastern Conference this season.
“They’re a team that’s improving,” Gustavsson said. “We’re pretty tight together in the standings. It’s one of those teams we want to get a good win over, be ahead of. That’s’ a team that’s really competing to make the playoffs. We’re one of those teams, too. It’s a big game. Important points.”
DeKEYSER RETURNS: After missing the past 14 games with a separated shoulder Danny DeKeyser will be back in the lineup Saturday when Detroit travels to Toronto. Although he’s eager to return, the defenseman knows it will take time to return to the high level he was playing at before the setback.
“It’ll be a little difficult at first,” DeKeyser said. “I’ve just got to get up to game speed. It’s been awhile since I’ve played so I’m going to do my best to play as well as I was playing when I got hurt so that’s what I’m going to try to do.
“Sitting around all the time makes it seem longer than a month that I’ve been out.”
HOMECOMING: Toronto native Brendan Smith will play in his first regular-season NHL game in his hometown Saturday. The defenseman grew up 10-minutes from Air Canada Centre, and is looking forward to seeing friends and family at the game during the holidays.
“It’ll be real exciting getting to go home and play, especially around Christmastime,” he said, “because there will be a lot of family and friends watching.”
INJURY UPDATE: Gustav Nyquist skated for the first time since sustaining a groin injury last Sunday against Tampa Bay. Although he feels healthy, the forward is still day-to-day and doesn’t expect to play Saturday.
“Whenever it feels 100 percent,” Nyquist said, “that’s my best answer to you of when I’ll be back. We’ve got to see within the next few hours after a good skate, if it flares up or if I feel anything we’ll take care of it and make a decision from there.”
Center Darren Helm was back on the ice after missing Thursday’s practice with the flu, and hopes to return from his shoulder injury Monday when the Red Wings host the New York Islanders.
“I think it’s kind of day-to-day still,” he said, “and just see how it feels in the next couple, hopefully in quick. Hopefully I wake up tomorrow and it feels great too.”