Källgren’s shutout hints that he may be Maple Leafs' solution: ‘We needed that’

Erik Kallgren recorded a shutout in his first career start, and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Dallas Stars 4-0.

TORONTO – Could the answer to Kyle Dubas’s most pressing problem have been sitting quietly underneath him the whole time?

If Erik Källgren — learn the name, don’t forget the umlaut, and the is schilent — is auditioning to be the solution, temporary or otherwise, to the Toronto Maple Leafs circus of follies in the blue paint, well, the kid is off to a pristine start.

Källgren followed up last Thursday’s point-saving appearance in emergency relief with something seldom seen in these parts since the calendar flipped to 2022: a quiet, quality performance by the starting goaltender in blue.

The 25-year-old import from the Swedish league would not have been recalled from the AHL Marlies had No. 1 Jack Campbell not gone down with a rib injury last week. Nor would he have been starting this week had No. 2 Petr Mrazek made good on either of his golden opportunities to grab the net and run.

In backstopping the Maple Leafs to a 4-0 shutout victory at Scotiabank Arena, Källgren did something neither of Toronto’s NHL-level goalies had done for the past six games: keep the opponent’s goals under four — the franchise’s most consistently porous stretch in more than 16 years.

“Lot of emotions, but I’m really happy for the win,” said Källgren, as composed at the podium as he was in the crease. “I felt calm. I felt good. I've played some big games before, but obviously not in NHL.

“I just tried to have fun and enjoy this moment.”

When the crowd rose to its feet and the game’s first star twirled the ice for his curtain call, Källgren pounded the Maple Leaf on his chest with a glove that helped him stop all 35 pucks fired his way.

Then the kid from Stockholm, who grew up idolizing Henrik Lundqvist (because of course), walked into a home dressing room he had trouble locating five days ago and was doused with upside-down water bottles from his bouncing big-league teammates.

“Shutout first game? It’s a dream,” Ondrej Kase beamed.

“He’s so nice. He’s the greatest guy to be around,” added Rasmus Sandin, who trained with Källgren in Stockholm over the summer and has been sharing dinners with him. “We were saying, we’re gonna do everything we can to get the shutout for him.

“We really needed that.”

Mrazek’s erratic positioning and string of softies had drained mojo from the skaters in front of him and stirred up a Fleury of trade speculation in this town as Leafs Nation counts five more sleeps until trade deadline.

Saves are oxygen for hockey teams. For the first night in a long while, the Leafs were breathing easy.

“It’s huge. It’s a hard game to play when you’re pulling the puck out of your net all the time,” said Sheldon Keefe, becoming the fastest Leafs coach to reach 100 wins.

“As players on the ice, you're questioning yourself. If you make mistakes [that lead to goals], you’re maybe a little more nervous.”

Unburdened by expectation, Källgren is standing six feet, three inches tall and unfazed, on the ice and in front of the podium.

"He's a quiet guy," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "Seems [like he's] feeling his way out a little bit. But, in saying that, when he gets on the ice and puts the gear on, seems very confident, very detailed in his demeanour."

Källgren’s feel-good 90 minutes of NHL film are instilling a confidence that’s fast contagious.

“He was solid,” said Keefe, the most relieved man in the barn. “Pucks came to him, and for the most part they stuck to him. I thought our team played really well in front of him.”

Källgren made seven stops during a crucial penalty kill and withstood Dallas’s early pressure strong, allowing Sandin to score when Toronto finally got around to registering its first shot on the Stars net — at the 7:22 mark.

Tavares — subbing in as top-line centre for the suspended Auston Matthews — registered an assist on Sandin’s cheeky backhander, then scored his 20th of the season by deflecting a William Nylander shot.

Kase assumed Matthews’ place on the NHL’s most effective power-play unit and sniped on the man-advantage, leaving Källgren to bolt the doors and collect the applause.

"It goes probably two ways with a new goalie," Stars forward Tyler Seguin had predicted pre-game. "He'll be unbelievable, or he'll be a little shaky.”

Källgren was anything but shaky, as the Maple Leafs improve to 26-14-2 all-time without Matthews in the lineup.

“Whether it’s Erik in the net or Auston not playing,” Keefe said, “we have that capability of putting together a nice, responsible game. And we did that here today.”

Next up: Toronto’s goaltending future has a date with a ghost of goaltending past, as Frederik Andersen and the Carolina Hurricanes crash through on Thursday.

“Let’s let the paint dry on this one here a little bit,” Keefe urged, knowing Toronto is already engraving mini Vezinas and brainstorming nicknames for its new hope.

OK. But considering the alternatives, one must believe the pipes belong to Källgren now.

“I'm going to take this very day-by-day. I mean, I was called up less than a week ago. I'm still just trying to enjoy this — to be up here and try to get better every day. So, trying not to think too much,” said Källgren, a face of calm before a panicking fanbase.

“I'll just go out there and be me.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Keefe has a firm sense of occasion. The coach adjusted his checking line so Nick Robertson could take the opening faceoff directly against older brother Jason.

Not only did Tuesday mark the first NHL meeting between the close siblings, but it was the first time mom Mercedes and dad Hugh got to see rookie Nick play live. (Fun fact: Jason’s first-ever NHL game also took place at Scotiabank Arena.) Per tradition, Mercedes wore the sweater of her home-team son and a ballcap representing the team of her away-team son.

A conference away, the brothers still talk at least every other day and frequently battle it out mic’d-up on “Chel.”

Jason is proud of young Nick and wasn’t surprised to see him claw his way back from a broken leg all the way to the Maple Leafs’ top six.

“He's probably the hardest worker I've ever seen in practice," Jason says. 

• With Matthews sidelined, Keefe occasionally went to a loaded top line of Marner–Tavares–Nylander for key O-zone faceoffs.

• Just as the Maple Leafs appreciated Matthews’ pushback during the Heritage Classic, Sabres fans gotta love Dylan Cozens finishing a big open-ice hit on Matthews in response to his cross-check of Rasmus Dahlin.

“Just seeing what he did to Ras, it was a really dirty cross-check and a dangerous cross-check by him. So, I decided to go out there and finish my check on him. And obviously, a couple of guys didn't like that. But I'd do it again if I had to,” Cozens said Tuesday.

“We just all have the same vision. We’re not about ourselves. We’re about bringing this team some success and bringing this city a Stanley Cup.”

How long until this guy gets a letter on his sweater?

• Ilya Lyubushkin’s first full game alongside Morgan Rielly?

Six hits from him, two thumbs-up from me.

Keefe likes what he saw and believes he’ll stick with the pairing.

• Of the seven teams sending scouts to take this one in live, the Seattle Kraken was the only club to send two representatives. One of them was assistant GM Jason Botterill. The Leafs have at least inquired on Mark Giordano and Calle Jarnkrok. Only five more days till deadline….

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