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Judd Zulgad

All Aboard the Gus Bus

No. 1 Wild goalie Gustavsson stopped 41 shots by the Florida Panthers.

Filip Gustavsson makes one of his 41 saves against Florida on Oct. 12. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Marc-Andre Fleury got the start in goal in the Wild’s first two games last season and things could not have gone worse. The future Hall of Famer gave up seven goals in a four-goal loss to the Rangers and was pulled after surrendering four in what turned into a 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

It was so bad that Fleury heard boos from the crowds at Xcel Energy Center and was replaced by newcomer Filip Gustavsson in the second period of the Kings game. Gustavsson was given the start in the Wild’s next game against Colorado, also played in downtown St. Paul, and gave up five goals on 37 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Avalanche.

The Wild’s goaltending situation, and defense, looked like a mess.

Fast forward a year to opening night at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday and the storyline could not have been more different. Gustavsson, now entering the season as the Wild’s No. 1 goalie ahead of the 38-year-old Fleury, stopped 41 shots by the Florida Panthers in a 2-0 victory over the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Filip Gustavsson watches play in front of him against the Florida Panthers. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The 18,976 who packed the X were on their feet throughout as Gustavsson made key save after key save. The Wild were outshot, 41-21, including 14-5 in a poor first period and 15-5 in the third, but Gustavsson never looked rattled and was always in control.

“(He’s) definitely the reason we got two points,” Wild winger Marcus Foligno said.

This type of performance was the reason that Wild general manager Bill Guerin rewarded Gustavsson with a three-year, $11.25 million contract during the offseason. That extension came a little more than a year after Guerin obtained Gustavsson from Ottawa for veteran goalie Cam Talbot.

That trade was only made because it was clear Talbot was not going to be happy having to share the net with Fleury and Guerin isn’t going to keep anyone who doesn’t want to be on his team. Gustavsson had played in a combined 27 games with the Senators the previous two seasons and many thought Guerin was taking what he could get for the disgruntled Talbot.

Those same people, present company included, had to rush to the Internet to find out who Gustavsson was and came away assuming he might not last the season.

Gustavsson quickly proved that given an opportunity, he belonged as an NHL starter. He started 37 regular-season games, only eight fewer than Fleury, and finished the season second in the league in goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.931). Gustavsson was brilliant in the Wild’s 3-2 overtime victory at Dallas in their first-round series, stopping 51 of 53 shots.

The 25-year-old — known as the Gus Bus and the subject of a fantastic commercial the Wild have begun airing in their “Not Weird. Wild” ad campaign — was the beneficiary of goals by defenseman Brock Faber, his first in the NHL, and center Joel Eriksson Ek. But that wouldn’t have been nearly enough if Gustavsson hadn’t kicked out shot after shot and stopped any rebounds that came his way.

“It’s not going to be like that every night, that’s for sure,” he said. “But sometimes you’re lucky, and you create your own luck.”

Gustavsson was being modest. There was nothing lucky about making 10 saves on Matthew Tkachuk or four on Evan Rodrigues or three on Aleksander Barkov.

His fourth career shutout had little to do with luck and far more to do with proving he belongs as the Wild’s No. 1 goalie.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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