ST. PAUL, Minn. – When the Minnesota Wild brought back Marc-Andre Fleury and traded Cam Talbot for Filip Gustavsson last summer, their outlook in the net seemed obvious.
Fleury was the three-time Stanley Cup winner with 19 seasons in the NHL who would be the primary goalie. Gustavsson was the 24-year-old with upside and just 27 career starts coming into the season who would be able to learn from one of the league's most respected players.
The “Gus Bus” turned out to be a remarkably smooth ride.
The Wild will enter the playoffs next week with a true tandem, the same approach they've taken for the last five months since Gustavsson first began to show them had more than just a project in the mix with the 38-year-old Fleury.
Gustavsson is third in goals against average (2.10) and second in save percentage (.931) among NHL goalies this season who played in more than 25 games.
“We didn’t expect this. This has been phenomenal," general manager Bill Guerin said. ”We all kind of agreed if this keeps up for the next little while he actually might just be this good, and he’s kept it up for quite a while. We think he’s pretty good."
Soon after Fleury suffered a minor upper-body injury in mid-November, Gustavsson started a personal six-game winning streak. In a stretch from Feb. 11-March 7, Gustavsson made eight starts and allowed a total of 11 goals. Fleury won seven straight starts himself from Feb. 23-March 19.
Fleury started 45 games and Gustavsson got 37 starts, the most by the secondary goalie of all 16 playoff teams. Only two others gave their top two goalies 30 or more starts: Seattle, with Martin Jones (42) and Philipp Grubauer (36), and Edmonton, with Stuart Skinner (48) and Jack Campbell (34).
Gustavsson has hardly been the secondary option, though. He started 16 of Minnesota’s last 28 games.
“We haven’t rotated, but we’ve had both goaltenders playing all season long. Would we feel comfortable playing both goaltenders? Absolutely. Would we feel great if one goaltender just kept playing great and we just kept going? Sure,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “That’s not going to be something that we’ll say we’re going to do 100% when we get there. We’re going to do exactly what we’ve done all season long, and that’s evaluate game by game and make our choice. Hopefully we make the right one.”
Last season, after he was acquired from Chicago at the deadline, Fleury with his clutch-time credentials was given the net for the first five games of the first-round series against St. Louis. Once the Wild decided it was time to turn to Talbot, it was too late. The Blues finished off the Wild in six games.
Talbot, who went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular-season starts, tried to be professional but couldn't hide his disappointment. After initially declaring his desire to bring back both veterans, Guerin changed his mind to change the dynamic and traded Talbot to Ottawa for Gustavsson.
So now how do the Wild make this goalie situation a good problem to have and not just a problem?
“It’s all in the way that we handle it with them and how they handle it personally,” Guerin said. "Decisions have to be made, and they have to be accepted, and that’s it.”
The Wild are confident that Fleury won't be a problem if he were to find himself on the bench in an elimination game with Gustavsson between the pipes.
“He doesn’t view him as an adversary. He views him as a teammate, and that’s not always the case,” Guerin said. “He’s helped him. I think when Flower has struggled, Gus has seen a way that Flower has handled his ups and downs. That’s helped him.”
Picking up the “Gus Bus” nickname is just one sign of the endearment Gustavsson has received from his new team. He's got a dry sense of humor, a calm demeanor and an approachable personality, committed to eating mashed potatoes with gravy and lingonberries for his pregame meals in an ode to his native Sweden. Fleury’s kids have come to games with homemade signs in support of Gustavsson.
“That’s a true teammate right there. That’s what we know we have in Marc-Andre and when he’s in, he gives us his absolute all. He holds himself accountable. He battles every night for us and holds himself to the highest standard,” defenseman Matt Dumba said. "I’m so excited to go on this ride with them.”