Peter Laviolette says you never know what youre going to get from your rookies when theyre faced with playoff pressure.
The regular season is one thing, but the playoffs are another.
He says you hope they rise to the occasion.
Sundays 5-1 closeout of the Pittsburgh Penguins saw rookie defenseman Erik Gustafsson rise to the occasion in his biggest playoff encounter yet.
The 23-year-old Swede, who was undrafted and signed by the Flyers as a free agent in late March of 2010, led the team with seven blocked shots.
He also scored a back-breaking goal early in the second period, giving the Flyers a 3-0 lead.
Gustafssons performance was easily the best by a Flyer rookie defenseman since 1995 when the Flyers had two of them Chris Therien and Karl Dykhuis. Truth is, there have not been many rookies on defense for the Flyers over the years.
Jimmy Watsons performance in 1974 probably was No. 1 all-time given it was a Cup year.
Andy Delmore had an impressive offensive run in 2000, but didnt last with the organization.
And remember, the only rookie defenseman this team had for a generation that was drafted and developed was Therien, who played nearly his entire Flyer career beside Eric Desjardins.
Gustafsson was the replacement in Game 5 for Nicklas Grossmann (concussion). What Gustafsson lacked in size, and physical net play Grossmanns obvious strengths he more than made up in Game 6 with tremendous stick quickness and mobility.
Several times in the game, he was matched on the ice with Pittsburghs Evgeni Malkin and more than handled the bigger Russian in the corners, in puck battles, taking it away from him on defense and holding it from him on offense.
Malkin could not get an edge on the kid.
Thats what a coaching staff needed to know. Could Gustafsson raise his game against a world class athlete in a pressure situation. He did.
I always say that when somebody gets injured, it is an opportunity for somebody else to step up, Laviolette said. The way Gus played the game, there was a lot of quickness to his stick.
Sticks on pucks and good positioning, because he is not as big as Malkin or whoever he is going up against. He had a heck of a gem for us. Defensively, he was really, really strong.
Chipped in with a goal, offensively, moved pucks efficiently out of the end, made passes through the neutral zone. I dont think it was entirely unexpected.
Gustafsson admitted he was nervous in his rookie debut game Game 5 in Pittsburgh which the Flyers lost, 3-2.
Better nerves on Sunday?
Yeah a little bit, he replied.
At the same time it is the home crowd and you want to play good. I was actually more nervous for this one. It was great when we got the opening goal and just build off of that.
As Gustafsson crossed the blue line, he let loose with a shot that Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didnt seem to think was coming.
I saw there was open ice, skated it, he said. I saw Claude and Jags on both sides and figured I would put it on net. I was tired and wanted to get off the ice.
Gustafsson earned and received a standing ovation in the game, too. Cant remember that last happening to a Flyer rookie defenseman, either.
Youre so happy and you can't even describe how you are feeling, Gustafsson said. You are so, so happy and we got the win on top of that. It has been a great day so far.
In the end, Laviolette said Gustafsson did everything and more.
We all know what he is capable of in playing a game, Laviolette said. But you get into a situation like that, you certainly want to see it.