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Jeff Blair

Monster calm amid goaltending controversy Add to ...

I guess it's going to take a while to get used to this Leafs Nation stuff. I mean, really - a goaltending controversy or crisis?

With Vesa Toskala?

Tough to see Toskala having the kind of cachet that would get people all worked up about whether he does or doesn't start a game. And that was the case before Jonas Gustavsson turned in a thoroughly business-like start last night in his NHL debut - 26 saves in the Toronto Maple Leafs' 2-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre - that ought to change the tenor of the goaltending, um, debate in this city heading into Saturday's game with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Toskala is, you know, okay - on a good team he'd be a backup - but it's tough to grant him special status based on what he's done in his time with the Maple Leafs. Gustavsson may not be better but, what's the problem with finding that out as soon as possible?

"He looked pretty good, he's a calm guy back there," Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said.

Lord knows why, based on the play of the team in front of him. Head coach Ron Wilson was so incensed with the non-aggression pact his forwards appeared to have made with the Senators that he mentioned the dreaded words "bag skate" after the game. Rightfully, he also had critical - if not harsh - words for Schenn, whose status as the fair-haired boy might have some currency in Leafs Nation but clearly won't cut it with the coaching staff after three less-than-mediocre games and an, at times, jittery preseason.

Yet through it all, The Monster was, as Schenn said, calm. That really was the thing that stood out about Gustavsson, who came into last Saturday's horror show against the Washington Capitals at the start of the second period. He used his big body to get in the way of shots as opposed to trying for style points - that is the basic premise of goaltending guru François Allaire's teachings - and wasn't perplexed when the play was tight around his net. There was a swatting-at-flies sense to many of his saves that suggested a goaltender who was well-positioned.

And when the Leafs pressed the issue in the third period, he was nonchalant in dealing with forays by Sens forwards Mike Fisher and Nick Foligno.

There was not much he could do on the two Ottawa goals. He was shoved into the back of the net by the Senators' fourth line on their first goal, which held up under review, and then beaten cleanly on a Daniel Alfredsson penalty shot.

"I thought he would shoot, because he has a good shot," Gustavsson said, after his countryman deked him before tucking away a backhand.

Meh ... that's the way those things sometimes go, right?

Or, as The Monster put it: "Sometimes, you know, the team scores on a penalty shot." True, that.

"Those were tough goals, but otherwise I felt all right," said the rookie, who needed a minor heart procedure during training camp that necessitated an incision through his groin.

"The guys helped me see the puck. And there were really no rebound shots."

Wilson wasn't asked at his postgame news conference who will start in goal on Saturday. "Alfredsson made a great move," the coach said in his assessment of Gustavsson's game, and then the conversation veered into more pressing issues.

There's a message, there, regardless of whether Gustavsson starts against the Penguins.

He couldn't deliver a win, but on this night The Monster turned the Leafs goaltending controversy or crisis into, at best, an issue. It's true goaltending will ultimately decide whether the Leafs make the playoffs, but right now it's about getting a win.

Thanks to The Monster, the goalies won't bear the brunt of Wilson's wrath for the next couple of days. That alone is a start.

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