Commentary

'Monster,' not Kessel, will steer Leafs

Updated: November 7, 2009, 11:48 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Give the other teams a sporting chance, Gary Bettman. Break 'em up -- the Toronto Maple Leafs are just too darn good.

In the blink of an eye, the Maple Leafs have gone from jug heads to juggernauts. OK, maybe "juggernaut" is overstating it a bit, but this is Toronto, after all, the home of hockey hyperbole.

Still, after starting the season a woeful 0-7-1, prompting suggestions this may be the worst Leafs team of all time, Toronto has now won two straight and gathered points in seven consecutive games following Saturday's resounding 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in the annual Hall of Fame weekend game.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gustavsson
Graig Abel/NHLI/Getty Images Jonas Gustavsson made 35 saves to lead Toronto to a 5-1 win over Detroit on Saturday night.

You don't have to look very far to see the catalyst for the Leafs' sudden, dramatic reversal of fortune. He's the gangly guy standing between the pipes wearing No. 50, the guy they call "The Monster."

It's not rocket science after all; get good goaltending, and everything else flows from that.

"Of course everybody on the team wants to win and wants to be successful and wants the fans to be happy," Jonas Gustavsson told reporters after he turned away 35 of 36 shots. "When we start playing better, everybody's going to be more happy, fans and, of course, we ourselves, too. If we just can continue like this, it's going to be a fun season."

Fun? That's hardly been a buzzword around this team for most of the first month of the NHL season, but that has changed with Gustavsson's return to the lineup after battling groin problems and a mild heart condition that kept him out at the start of the season.

The thing about Gustavsson is, as highly coveted as he was (Toronto, Dallas and San Jose were the final three teams bidding for his services this past offseason), the 25-year-old was in many ways an unknown. As good as he was in the Swedish Elite League last season, and he was plenty good, hence the nickname, no one could say for certain whether his game would translate in North America.

Yet Gustavsson's self-confidence led him to seek out not just a place where he would be afforded an opportunity to play, but also where he would be allowed to be true to his own style.

Gustavsson had one main request of teams during his selection process, his agent Joe Resnick told ESPN.com Saturday night: that they not try to force him into playing a different style. Resnick and Gustavsson met with all of the goaltending coaches with the interested teams to express this desire.

"He said, 'You can refine my style, I'm not perfect,'" Resnick recalled.

When it came to the Leafs' meeting, Gustavsson and Resnick spent 3½ hours over dinner one night with coach Ron Wilson, goaltending coach Francois Allaire, GM Brian Burke and assistant GM Dave Nonis. In the end, Gustavsson thought the Leafs were the right fit for him. That feeling has been reciprocated.

On a night when the score suggested a rout, this game was anything but that. The Leafs managed to score first for just the second time this season in large part because of Gustavsson's steadying presence. The win marked the second win in 24 hours for the Leafs, who dispatched Carolina 3-2 on Friday in Raleigh, N.C. The two-day windfall marked the first time Gustavsson has played back-to-back games in his brief NHL career.

Those kinds of moments are tests, and the lanky 6-foot-3 netminder passed with flying colors.

"Of course it's different. You have to prepare yourself real well," he said. "Drink, eat and sleep a lot, and if you feel something, you have to take care of that, massage or whatever."

It's early. Many November saviors end up being a footnote by the time February rolls around. But Gustavsson has made his presence felt almost every night since he returned to the lineup.

On Saturday, he was stellar during a second-period Detroit power play. At the very moment the power play ended, Jeff Finger scored to give the Leafs a 3-0 lead. Early in the third period during another Detroit power play, Gustavsson robbed Henrik Zetterberg from in close to keep the score at 3-0.

Phil Kessel's presence in a Leafs jersey since returning from offseason shoulder surgery this past week has jump-started the offense (he scored his first goal as a Leaf on Saturday and added an assist), but early evidence suggests this team will go only as far as Gustavsson will take it.

"He's given us a chance to win every game. He's made big saves at key times. When you've got that in goal, it gives you confidence," Leafs defenseman Francois Beauchemin said. "Just the way he battles for pucks. He fights for every single shot. Even in practice, he works really hard and that's why I think he's really good. He gets mad when he gets scored on, even in practice. His work ethic is really good."

The fact that Wilson didn't hesitate to use Gustavsson on successive nights might have been as much a function of a lack of confidence in last season's starter, Vesa Toskala, but Wilson clearly sees the difference in his team since Gustavsson has taken over the starting job.

"When you do get saves in a situation where you've made a mistake and the goalie bails people out, they're obviously appreciative of it and dig in even more," Wilson said. "And you can take a few chances here and there thinking that you'll get a stop at the other end."

Has all of this been how Gustavsson imagined it?

"I'm not the big thinker," he said. "I don't think so much before the season how things are going to go. I'm just happy to be here and try to work hard all the time to be better and better."

Sounds like words to live by: don't think, just save.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.