Coming off an outstanding performance that helped Sweden win the IIHF World Championships in May, Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson has a new lease on his NHL life.
Unlike any other point in his young career, Gustafsson feels he belongs in the big leagues.
Entering the World Championships, “I didn’t know what they expected of me there, and they really gave me a lot of responsibility and I felt I played really well and the team played really well when we needed it,” said Gustafsson, a fleet puck-mover who led Sweden by averaging nearly 24 minutes per game and was not on the ice for any even-strength opponent goals. “We won it, which was great, and I felt good. It made me realize you can play with the best.”
Gustafsson, 24, was paired with 6-foot-7 veteran Hal Gill, a camp invitee, on Sunday night as the Flyers, using a split squad, opened their exhibition season with a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in London, Ontario.
Gustafsson had an up-and-down game. Midway through the opening period, his turnover led to Mason Raymond’s shorthanded, breakaway goal against Steve Mason.
But Gustafsson shook off the shaky start. He was paired with Luke Schenn in the second period and set up Brayden Schenn’s rebound goal early in the period, and Gustafsson just missed scoring the tying goal twice in the final period.
The Flyers have a logjam on defense. Nine defensemen have one-way contracts, including Gustafsson.
“I try not to think about what the roster is going to be like and just focus on my part,” Gustafsson said earlier in the week. “I’m trying to do my best and show them I deserve regular minutes.”
Gustafsson, who divided time with the Flyers and AHL Phantoms last season, said he has a new attitude this year.
“The biggest part for me has really been the mental aspect; I came in with a little too much respect (last season) for the players,” he said. “I mean, it’s still only hockey. I said to myself in my last call-up last year to put all that aside and just play hockey, and I think from that point on, it’s just been playing upwards for me.”
Breakaways. Nick Cousins had a goal and an assist….Zac Rinaldo left the game with an unspecified injury….Doug Clarkson, a 6-5, 242-pound winger who signed with the Phantoms last week, scored the Flyers’ first goal and got into a fight with David Broll a few seconds later…..Anthony Stolarz allowed just one goal after replacing Mason (12 saves on 15 shots) midway through the game….The Flyers’ split squad will face Washington Monday at the Wells Fargo Center. The team’s three key off-season signees _ Vinny Lecavalier, Mark Streit and Ray Emery _ are expected to be in the lineup. Caps star Alex Ovechkin will not play…..The other Flyers squad will play in Toronto Monday….Winger Wayne Simmonds, the target of a racial incident when a fan threw a banana on the ice the last time the Flyers played a preseason game in London two years ago, was not on the road trip….Defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon, who had been sidelined by post-concussion syndrome, skated at the Wells Fargo Center Sunday for the first time in camp.
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