The Monster was certainly scary on Tuesday night.
Problem was he was only terrifying his own team.
Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson was beaten three times on 21 shots in what became a 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, as the third-year Swede looked nervous and often out of position before he was yanked for spotting the visitors a 3-zip lead by the second period.
This was his first start in nearly a week, but it could be his last for a while.
Up until Gustavsson imploded late in the second – allowing two questionable goals 19 seconds apart to turn a tight-checking 1-0 game into a 3-0 runaway in the blink of an eye – the Leafs and Panthers had played to basically a draw.
One bounce at the halfway mark could have put Toronto back into the game, but with Panthers starter Jose Theodore playing well, Gustavsson’s implosion appeared to deflate his team – even when backup Ben Scrivens took over after the third goal.
“We’ve got to support our goalies better, and if it’s a rough time for them, play better defensively," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said afterwards. "Sometimes that’s hard to do if you don’t give up any chances and the puck’s in the net. [When]it’s not a scoring chance, there’s not much you can do.”
"It was just one of those nights where you don't get the bounces," Gustavsson said. "You know everything just hits the post, deflects, bounces back and forth. Overall I felt pretty good."
Gustavsson’s night took a wrong turn early. The Panthers opened the scoring 10 minutes in when Jack Skille danced around defenceman Luke Schenn and put the puck into an empty net, the result of the Leafs goalie being bumped out of the crease by teammate Nikolai Kulemin.
The Monster was then caught wandering after a puck in the corner and was all over the place when he got back to his net, allowing Marco Sturm to deftly lift the puck over him to make it 2-0.
Mere seconds later, Tomas Kopecky’s long wrister beat Gustavsson to give Florida a three-goal lead – and Wilson had seen enough.
(So had those at the Air Canada Centre, many of whom booed to end the second and left early in the third.)
Scrivens went on to allow a couple iffy ones to turn the game into another lopsided one, with Phil Kessel snapping a four-game goal drought to break Theodore’s shutout bid.
“Their goalie made a number of big saves and then unfortunately we didn’t get a save," Wilson said. "And that kind of sunk us. We’ve got to shore up our goaltending obviously ...
“If you’re not sure what’s going to happen in the back, you play a little cautious. But for me the positive thing is the number of scoring chances we had compared to [our last few games]”
“I know those guys probably aren’t happy with the way they played, but a lot of us aren’t," winger Joffrey Lupul added. "You win as a team and lose as a team. So it kind of goes hand in hand. We all count on each other and we’re not scoring enough goals for them right now.”
The loss gave the Leafs their first two-game losing skid of the season, dropping their record to 9-5-1 and putting them just two points ahead of a supposedly non-playoff-bound Florida team.
Gustavsson’s numbers this season, meanwhile, went from bad to awful: a 3.78 goals-against average and .878 save percentage.
As a result, the man known as The Monster is now precariously close to playing his way back to the minors – where he spent a two-week conditioning stint last season – and right out of the NHL.
Because at 27, he certainly doesn’t look like much of a prospect any more.
And for the Leafs, No. 1 James Reimer’s return from concussion-like symptoms can’t come soon enough.
"We should still have some confidence in here," Lupul said. "Four or five days ago, we were the top team in the NHL. So get back to work tomorrow at practice. We need to push each other.
"And hopefully [our luck]changes as soon as we get on the road in St. Louis [on Thursday]and win a hockey game."
No way, Jose
Even as the Leafs got little in goal, Theodore was putting on a show at the other end, making 38 saves – including 30 in the final 40 minutes – for his fifth win of the season.
Not bad for the two-year, $3-million (U.S.) deal he signed in the summer – and a sign of how little a solid option in goal can often cost these days.
“Theodore was really, really good in the second period when we needed him," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
Kessel’s drought ends
If there was a positive for the Leafs, it was Kessel getting back on the board – if only to end the insufferable slump watch that seems to come up every time he doesn’t score for three or four games in a row.
Because it isn’t headline news, even for a 40-goal scorer, to not get the bounces every game.
With the goal, Kessel moved back into sole possession of the NHL goal scoring lead with 11 in 15 games. He also leads the league in points with 22.
One player who wouldn’t mind if Kessel shared some of the wealth is Tyler Bozak, who’ll presumably be his centre in Tim Connolly’s two-week absence with another upper-body injury.
In 13 games, Bozak has yet to score, has just 10 shots on goal and five assists.
What next in goal?
The Leafs coach was asked at the tail end of his postgame press conference what he'll do in the future with his goaltenders, both of whom are struggling mightily. Toronto has been outscored 12-1 in its last two games.
"They've got to work hard in practice," Wilson said. "That's their responsibility to sit there with [goalie coach]Frankie [Allaire]and go over the games [on video] At least we go on the road. Where maybe they can relax a little bit and not worry about what's going to happen when they make a mistake. Tomorrow, they'll hopefully bounce back."
Wilson wouldn't reveal who would start Thursday against the Blues, although Scrivens has to be the favourite given how fragile Gustavsson appears.
"In my mind I [know]" he said. "But I don't have to share. Why don't I just call Hitch? I'll tell him who's going to play and everything. No, we'll make the decision at practice tomorrow or maybe even the next day. I want to see how the goalies play in practice, how they rebound from this and we'll go from there."
As for Reimer's return, that remains very much in the air.
"I really don't know," Wilson said. "I can't comment on that because I simply don't know [when he'll be back]"