It's Monster's spot to lose

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:45 AM ET

Of all the questions peppered at Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson yesterday, no one asked the Swedish stringbean if he had a penchant for calamari.

Of course, we could find that out tonight if and when the first gooey octopus plops on to the Joe Louis Arena ice surface -- as is the tradition in Motown -- when the Maple Leafs face off against the Detroit Red Wings.

More importantly, we'll get our first look at how the young goaltender fares in his NHL debut, even if it is just exhibition action.

The Wings are not treating this as just another (yawn) pre-season tilt. According to Leafs coach Ron Wilson, the hosts will ice a lineup that resembles the one that stretched the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the final this past spring.

One, in fact, that could very well include super Swedes Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, players Gustavsson grew up watching back in his native country.

Not that The Monster is quivering at the prospect of facing some of the Wings' top guns. Far from it.

"I don't care who I face, just as long as I stop the first puck," the calm-and-cool Gustavsson said yesterday.

Under Wilson's tentative plan, Gustavsson is expected to get in for one period this evening, then follow that up with a two-period stint when the Leafs and Wings lock horns in the back end of this home-and-home pre-season series tomorrow night at the Air Canada Centre.

Gustavsson's training camp was derailed from the get-go when he was rushed to hospital Sept. 12 after his heart rate spiked during team physicals. Three days later he underwent a catheter ablation to correct his abnormally high heart rate, which occurred after intense exercise.

After being cleared to return to the ice earlier this week, Gustavsson -- signed as a free agent from the Swedish elite league during the summer -- has been champing at the bit to see action. In his absence, former New York Islander Joey MacDonald has stepped up in the battle to land the No. 2 job behind Vesa Toskala.

For his part, Gustavsson does not seem concerned.

"(MacDonald) has been good, but you can't think about other goalies," he said. "You just have to concentrate on your own game."

If you are Jonas Gustavsson, that's the best philosophy to have. Because in the long run, unless The Monster runs into more health issues or suddenly loses his ability to stop pucks, MacDonald should not be an issue.

That's not to say MacDonald might not start the season with the Leafs as Toskala's understudy.

But keep this in mind: When general manager Brian Burke was racking up frequent flyer points winging his way to Europe in an attempt to woo Gustavsson to Toronto, he wasn't dishing out all those MLSEL bucks just to land an AHL goaltender.

As part of their eventual agreement, the two parties have had an understanding all along, one that promised Gustavsson a legitimate shot to earn minutes at the NHL level.

Remember, too, that Gustavsson becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season. The Leafs would not want to renege on their promise and tick off the kid, who is considered the franchise's goalie of the future.

For his part, Gustavsson seems to have a good head on his shoulders. He's not about to pull an Anton Stralman and erupt into a hissy fit if he is sent to the farm.

"Of course, you have to play good to make the team," he said. "If I didn't make the team, well, you can't feel sorry for yourself. You have to work harder and get back up to the big team."

For tonight, at least, stopping pucks and avoiding the flying octopi will suffice.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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