This was Jonas Gustavsson’s chance.
His counterpart in the Toronto Maple Leafs goal, James Reimer, had struggled to the point that coach Ron Wilson was willing to run with whoever could give him a save, playing a wild game of musical chairs between the two netminders.
Gustavsson’s number came up on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, but his big opportunity quickly became a horror show, with three goals beating him five-hole in a 4-3 overtime loss that was almost solely on his shoulders.
Even his coach was at a loss at how to defend Gustavsson’s play – especially on a winning goal that appeared to be veering wide but somehow found the back of the net.
And it now falls to GM Brian Burke to attempt to fix his team’s biggest black hole before the trade deadline next week.
“It’s just disappointing what happened in overtime,” a particularly sombre Wilson said after the game. “Especially when we hit the post ... and they scored on a shot that was essentially going wide.”
Only a mad dash comeback attempt allowed the Leafs to net a single point out of this one, with Phil Kessel swatting in the tying goal with 43 seconds to play in regulation to breathe some life into his team.
It didn’t take long for Gustavsson to give it back.
Devils defenceman Mark Fayne did the honours there, scoring his fourth goal of the season one minute, 18 seconds into overtime on a long knuckle puck that – as Wilson intimated – hit the Leafs goalie as he slid wildly through the crease.
“No matter what I should stop it,” Gustavsson said.
His teammates tried valiantly to defend the stoic Swede known as The Monster afterwards, but frustration was clearly evident on their faces. Down 2-0 in the first, the Leafs had rallied back to 2-2 and then 3-3 against one of the hottest teams – and goalies – in the league, getting goals from Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur as the big guns were held in check.
Even a potentially backbreaking flub with under two minutes to play in the second, when former Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky floated one past Gustavsson to make it 3-2, didn’t sap the home team’s confidence.
They were the better team in the third, something that only finally paid off with Kessel’s goal and that stands as a big point given it keeps the Leafs in eighth.
If only for another day.
The Leafs are now 1-5-1 in their last seven games – having allowed 27 goals in that span – and watching others creep up behind them in the standings.
Even with the rally, however, it’s hard to look at what happened in goal Tuesday and not see it as part of a multi-season problem for this franchise.
Those issues aren’t new to Burke, either. As the GM of the Vancouver Canucks before the lockout, he stuck it out with Dan Cloutier long past when he had proven incapable of playing for a team with playoff aspirations.
Burke has also seen it for most of his tenure with the Leafs, too, with the franchise saddled with Vesa Toskala types for the majority of his three-and-a-half seasons.
Even though he once vowed that would never happen.
“Never again will I be short on goaltending,” Burke once said during Toskala’s tenure, going on to compare the need for a good netminder to the need for a solid pitching staff in baseball.
“It doesn’t matter what other positions you solve, it doesn't matter if you're GM of the year for the other positions, if you don't have goaltending, you're going home.”
With 22 games left in his fourth season in Toronto, Burke is without question now “short on goaltending” – the direct result of a call made in the off-season that’s all on the GM.
Now his coach is out of answers, his team’s shoulders are sagging and this is the one glaring weakness that threatens to derail their season.
And there are six days left to fix it.
More quotes from Wilson and his players after the game:
Jonas Gustavsson: “Of course it doesn’t feel good right now. Every time we lose a game, I don’t feel good about it. But obviously when it happens like that, you know you could have done better. That’s what’s going to be in my head maybe tonight. But it's a new day tomorrow. I can't really think about that. That's going to happen to better goalies than me.”
Ron Wilson: "I don't know [who plays in goal next]. It's a hard place to play goal, period. We've got to find a way to get them settled down and try to find a way of getting them some confidence. They've got to get to the top of the crease and go from there."
Wilson on his advice for Gustavsson: "Work hard in practice. You've got to work hard in practice and correct your mistakes. You've got to be focused going in, not thinking bad things are going to happen, and nail your style down. Be aggressive. If you're going to make mistakes, don't make passive mistakes."
Carl Gunnarsson: "He played well through the whole game and then just a fluke puck, or whatever, bounce, it was. It's always tough. We can't blame him for that, for the loss. It's the whole team."
Dion Phaneuf: "To be honest with you, we win as a team and lose as a team. There's no blame. There's no pointing any fingers. It's a team game."
Clarke MacArthur: "It's tough. He worked hard. He got us one point during the night; he helped out."
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