OTTAWA – It had been quite a while for Jonas Gustavsson.
The 26-year-old won back-to-back starts for the first time since March 2010, stopping 34 shots as the Leafs topped the surging Penguins 4-3 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday. Making his third consecutive start in place of the injured James Reimer, Gustavsson displayed what appears to be a growing confidence, looking settled and comfortable, notably in key moments down the stretch.
With the Leafs protecting a one-goal lead late in the third period, Gustavsson stacked the pads on Mark Letestu crashing the goal, sealing the Leafs' seventh win in ten games (7-2-1) this season.
"Of course the more you play and practice and the more you play games you get experience and you feel like you're getting into the groove," said Gustavsson following the game.
"He played great," added Ron Wilson, "made a number of big saves when we needed them."
The third-year netminder – who also earned a win in New York two days earlier with a 28-save performance – is set to start again in Ottawa on tonight.
"For me, it's all about mentally trying to be at the same level, no matter what's happening," he said. "Sometimes it can be even tougher when you have a couple of good games because then maybe you take it easy in the warm-up and stuff like that because you feel like you're going to have a good game, but that's when you're not going to have that good game.
"Of course it feels good after a game when you win, but the next day you try and re-focus and go from there."
Gustavsson is trying to rediscover his footing in the NHL after a disastrous campaign a year ago. After a relatively solid start serving as the back-up to J.S. Giguere, Gustavsson's sophomore season swerved off the rails beginning in early December, when he allowed two goals on six shots and was hooked in a 5-0 loss to Edmonton. He went on to lose seven of his next ten starts, capped by a 7-0 blowout to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
"Last year the team was struggling," noted Carl Gunnarsson, who logged over 23 minutes against Pittsburgh. "He was good in net, but we just couldn't help him out enough. I think he's been great these games and the team has been way better. Just giving him those wins is great for his confidence too."
It was in the tail-end of his rookie NHL season that Gustavsson showed flashes of potential brilliance. He won seven consecutive starts from March 6-27, and allowed a mere 14 goals in the process.
Reimer looks to be on the mend – he took part in the morning skate on Saturday – and could be ready for action later this week. The capable stand-in performance of Gustavsson, however, is a crucial step in the right direction. The club needs to have full confidence turning to their back-up on occasion, an area that was somewhat uncertain entering the season. If the Leafs can turn to Gustavsson with surety, they'll be more than willing to ease the load on the 23-year-old Reimer, starting in the NHL for the first time this season.
Talk about high praise.
Ron Wilson had glowing words for Dion Phaneuf following another strong performance against Pittsburgh on Saturday night. "Personally I think by a country mile he's the best defenceman in the league," said Wilson. "It's not even close right now."
"I think he's comfortable in his own skin," continued Wilson, "he's comfortable being the captain, he's healthy and I think without taking away from his play, the way Carl Gunnarsson's played has made Dion's job a lot easier.
"It's just freed up Dion to play as best as I've ever seen him."
Phaneuf logged over 27 minutes versus the Penguins, tallying two assists and a body-crunching hit on Evgeni Malkin. The 26-year-old is tied for second in scoring among defencemen with 11 points, also sitting just below Sheldon Souray for the lead in plus/minus (plus-7).
"It's great just playing with him right now," said Gunnarsson, "lots of energy, great offence, he's good down-low too; he's playing great."
Through ten games, Phaneuf has been on the ice for just seven goals against at even-strength, despite logging nearly 183 minutes (18:17 per game), almost always against the opposition's best line.
"I was in San Jose when he was up for rookie of the year," said Wilson. "I never thought he played very well defensively and he's kind of figured that part out, using his stick really well."
"That's my job," said Phaneuf. "My job first and foremost is to keep the puck out of our net and I take pride in doing that."
Tim Connolly picked up a goal and an assist in his just second game of the season. The 30-year-old scored his first as a Leaf on the power-play, jamming home a rebound past Brent Johnson, adding a helper on Phil Kessel's 10th of the year and eventual game-winner.
Connolly's vision and passing ability has stood out in the early going for the Leafs. His cross-ice feed to Kessel for the game-winner Saturday night was a good example of that. "Phil's eyes were as big as saucers when he saw the gap," said Wilson, "and Timmy didn't even hesitate, he fired it right over, perfect pass."
Inked to a two-year deal worth $9.5 million last summer, Connolly missed the first eight games this season with a shoulder injury, but he's stepped in and performed right away since joining the lineup for the first time in New York on Thursday.
Wilson continues to roll four lines with efficiency. Despite their unofficial designation as the fourth line, the trio of David Steckel, Phillipe Dupuis and Mike Brown all logged significant minutes against the Penguins; Steckel played 16:45, Dupuis 14:59 and Brown 14:27.
It was their line (Matthew Lombardi subbed for Brown) that Wilson turned to in the final seconds of the third period with the Leafs protecting a 4-3 lead. Mikhail Grabovski led all Leaf forwards in ice-time, playing just over 17 minutes.
Also notable in the ice-time department is the growing dependency of Mike Komisarek. Komisarek logged over 18 minutes of efficient ice alongside John-Michael Liles, blocking six shots and adding an assist. The 29-year-old logged 19:29 against the Rangers two nights earlier.