He came out of the penalty box and went screaming down the ice all alone. That he shouldn’t have been in the penalty box in the first place suddenly didn’t matter (except for the fact that it set him up nicely with a clear path). What mattered at that point was watching Erik Gustafsson, a blur of orange, charging hard for the Rangers’ net.
It was an important moment for him in the spotlight after so many other moments spent in the shadows. Gustafsson was the forgotten man for the first five games of the Flyers-Rangers playoff series. Or, if he wasn’t forgotten, he was a mere addendum to conversations that had less to do with him than his teammates. When Nick Grossmann suffered tendon damage to his right ankle in Game 4, the question was who might replace him. Gustafsson was mentioned. So was 39-year-old veteran Hal Gill. Gill got the nod for Game 5 -- then struggled mightily.
Gill was bad enough that people wondered, rightly, whether Craig Berube could possibly go with him again in Tuesday’s Game 6 at the Wells Fargo Center. Berube decided against it. Gill was out. Gustafsson was in.
"Obviously, I was a little disappointed I didn't get to play [Game 5],” Gustafsson said. “[Berube] had his reasoning and I accepted that. When I was told that I was playing [Tuesday], I couldn't tell you how excited I was."
Which brings us back to Gustafsson’s moment, which had as much to do with his redemption as the team’s. The Flyers were up by two goals in the second period. It was a nice enough cushion even though it wasn’t quite enough to make them comfortable. How could they relax when the Rangers were capable of deleting their lead and sending them into the offseason sooner than they wanted?
But if there was any anxiety about New York mounting an unfortunate and ill-timed comeback, it evaporated when Gustafsson came out of the penalty box. Braydon Coburn put the puck on Gustafsson’s stick. Gustafsson did the rest. He skated down the ice unimpeded and beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist without much trouble. As the horn blared and the fans went mad, Gustafsson gave what must have been a very satisfying fist-pump.
"It was a lot of fun when I saw the puck come down to me,” said Gustafsson, who helped the Flyers beat the Rangers, 5-2, to force Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday evening (see Instant Replay). “I think it took a fortunate bounce. I almost thought Lundqvist was going to get it but luckily the puck went in."
It was the second playoff goal of his career. And it might not have happened if not for the penalty that landed him in the box in the first place -- the penalty that shouldn’t have been called because it wasn’t a penalty at all.
With about eight minutes left in the second period, the puck was behind the Flyers’ net and off to the left side. Gustafsson and Rangers winger Derek Dorsett gave chase. As they neared the boards, Gustafsson peeled off. Dorsett kept going. They crossed paths but there wasn’t any contact. Well, there wasn’t any contact except for when Dorsett kept going and sort of face-planted himself into the plexiglass like a confused bird smacking hard into an unyielding office window. Dorsett went down. Gustafsson got called for high-sticking.
(It should be noted that Dorsett got a two-minute penalty for embellishment in the third period. It was the kind of thing that made believers in karma and make-up calls nod approvingly.)
The Gustafsson penalty that shouldn’t have been a penalty was killed off by the Flyers. That’s how Gustafsson found himself in such an advantageous position. If he didn’t merit being in the box in the first place, he surely didn’t mind coming out of it to score a goal thereafter (see 10 observations). Following the game, Gustafsson was asked about that -- about the irony of a penalty he didn’t deserve setting him up for such a big goal.
“It worked out,” Gustafsson said with a grin.
It did indeed.