As Filip Gustavsson bows his head in the goal crease the giant, silver No. 30 on the top of his goalie mask fills the camera lens.
There’s only one problem. Gustavsson wears No. 32 for the Ottawa Senators. Matt Murray is No. 30. Gustavsson’s numerical mismatch tells a story. He is supposed to be with AHL Belleville, where he wears No. 30 for the Belleville Senators.
“Gus,” as he is known, was about as far from being heir to the Sens’ goalie throne as Prince Harry is to being a king. And yet there he was on Monday, frustrating the Calgary Flames to win his NHL debut 2-1 — a spectacular 35-save, .972 save percentage effort.
And the craziest part of all? It felt like a week-old deja vu.
As the last-place team of the North Division, the Senators don’t lead the NHL in many categories but they have this one locked up: rookie goaltenders making emergency starts and recording their first career wins.
It may happen elsewhere from time to time. In Ottawa, it happened twice in one week.
Sadly, Daccord, 24, who made his NHL debut in 2018-19 and has appeared in eight career NHL games, suffered an ankle injury in his next start and is out for the year. Daccord’s rise and fall was another illustration of how quickly a heartwarming moment in the NHL can turn into disaster with one bad break.
Incredibly, Gustavsson stepped in where Daccord left off and stoned the Flames. Notably, he stopped Zac Rinaldo in alone. And the lone goal he surrendered was also on a breakaway to Johnny Gaudreau. Ottawa is 4-2-0 against Calgary this season.
Gustavsson became the first Senators goalie to be victorious in his first NHL start since the immortal Andrew Hammond on Feb. 18, 2015. That was, of course, the start of the Hamburglar run which led to a surprise Ottawa playoff berth. The Hamburglar was 20-1-2 that season with a 1.79 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, heights he never again approached in the NHL. In the smallest of sample sizes, Gustavsson is 1-0-1 on the season with a 0.75 goals-against and .977 save percentage.
Just 22, Gustavsson has more upside than Hammond, and yet his path has been uneven, as is the case for many goaltenders. Just last season, he was passed on the depth chart by Daccord, who took over the starter’s job in Belleville. Gustavsson did play better after a very slow start.
This season again looked like a Daccord-Gustavsson tandem for the B-Sens, until both Murray and Hogberg went down. Strangely, while the kids in relief have been great, both of Ottawa’s expected starters — Murray and Hogberg have struggled. Murray has a goals-against of 3.84 and save percentage of .880; Hogberg is 4.34 and .859.
Last week, the Senators picked up Anton Forsberg on waivers from Winnipeg and he will likely get a start this week — the Senators have a back-to-back situation Wednesday and Thursday with games against the Flames and Leafs.
Hogberg made an appearance at Tuesday’s practice and could see some action with Belleville this weekend. Hogberg hasn’t played since getting injured in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 18. Murray last played on March 10, a 7-1 loss to Edmonton.
For now, Gustavsson will enjoy his moment in the sun. A second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 (55th overall), Gustavsson came to Ottawa in February, 2018 as part of a trade that sent centre Derick Brassard to the Penguins.
Gustavsson has played games in the SHL, AHL and even the ECHL as Ottawa’s goalie depth squeezed him to Brampton to get games in. On Monday, after posing with the game puck that Brady Tkachuk had to wrestle from the Flames to secure, Gustavsson declared the long journey worth the effort.
“All the hard practices and all the summer workouts, it’s worth it,” Gustavsson said. “When you get the chance to play against the best players in the world, it’s worth it.”
Last Wednesday, when he appeared in relief of the injured Daccord, Gustavsson had to wake his parents up in the middle of the night over in Sweden to tell them he’d been in an NHL game. This time, he was able to warn them in advance he was starting on Monday versus Calgary.
The Gustavsson’s exchanged texts with their son just before he met with reporters on a post-game Zoom call.
“They stayed up and watched and were so happy for me,” Gustavsson said. “Just so happy.”
The start, and the win, meant “everything” to him, Gustavsson said, after an up-and-down season in 2019-20, one that ended abruptly due to the pandemic just as he was playing better.
“When they put me in and I delivered what they wanted from me in the first place, when they traded for me … it’s a great feeling to give something back to them,” Gustavsson said. “And for them to give me the chance to play in the best hockey league.”
Beating the veteran Swede Jacob Markstrom at the other end was “cool,” Gustavsson said, calling it a bit of a “starstruck moment.”
Critically, Gustavsson was able to bear down after the Gaudreau goal tied the game with a little more than five minutes left in the third. Chris Tierney chipped in the winner at 17:24.
“I think I had the same mindset the whole game, like I’m just going to enjoy it,” Gustavsson said. “It doesn’t matter how many goals I let in or if I stop them all. It was just a bummer to get scored on with five minutes left. It’s what it is. He’s such a skilled guy. And I just had to focus on the next shot and let the players do their job too.”
Until the Gaudreau goal, Gustavsson had made 41 consecutive saves in regulation going back to the shootout loss to the Canucks last Wednesday.
Winger Connor Brown said that Gustavsson “played fearless,” which gave the team confidence in front of him.
“He did everything out there,” added head coach D. J. Smith. “It was great. He looked calm. Made the saves he had to make. We hung him out on the breakaway there at the end.
“For a guy playing in this first game, he wasn’t swimming… I guess that’s why you work every day in the minors. You never know when you’ll get your chance.”
Gustavsson and Raynaud’s disease
Gustavsson suffers from a mild case of Raynaud’s disease, which can cause a person’s extremities to go numb from cold temperatures or stress. In Gustavsson’s case, he sometimes loses feeling in the fingers of his blocker hand. When he made his relief appearance against Vancouver last Wednesday, Gustavsson came in “cold” and at one point had to go to the bench for heat treatment on his hand. He said he had no issues on Monday versus Calgary because he had a chance to warm up for the game.
“I maybe need that type of treatment about four times a year when something suddenly happens, like you’re a little bit cold on the bench and you don’t have the blood flow in the body,” Gustavsson said.
Watson out with hand injury
Coaches love their shot blockers, but the pastime can be bad for your health. Austin Watson, the Senators winger who has been throwing his body in front of shots all season, suffered a hand injury from a shot block late in Monday’s game against the Flames and was seen wearing a cast on his left hand while watching Tuesday’s practice.
Smith said it will be a huge loss if Watson is out long term.
“That’s one of the guys (GM) Pierre (Dorion) brought in here who has pushed the character of the group, the work ethic, what’s expected to be a pro in the NHL day to day. The way he sacrifices his body for the team … defensive zone starts. All the things he does without complaining is exactly who you want a young team to learn from.”
Speedy winger Alex Formenton has been recalled from Belleville and will play Wednesday.
Watson, 29, was acquired by the Senators in the off-season for a fourth-round draft pick and is signed through the 2022-23 season. He leads all NHL forwards in shot blocks with 49 and is seventh in hits with 100, behind league leader/teammate Tkachuk with 147 hits.
Watson has been a key penalty killer for the Senators. Smith said he would have a further update on the extent of Watson’s hand injury in a day or so.