TORONTO – Erik Kallgren needed help getting into Scotiabank Arena after being called up by the Maple Leafs.
Less than a week later, the 25-year-old rookie was on the receiving end of a raucous ovation as he tapped the white crest on his sweater in the same building following a performance that, for at least one night, steadied Toronto’s shaky goaltending situation.
The cool, stoic Kallgren made 35 saves in his first NHL start Tuesday in the Leafs’ 4-0 blanking of the Dallas Stars.
“Try to treat it as a normal game,” the Swede said of his approach. “Just embrace the moment.”
John Tavares, with a goal and an assist, Rasmus Sandin, Ondrej Kase and Ilya Mikheyev, into an empty net, scored for Toronto (38-17-5). Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly added two assists each for the Leafs, who were minus suspended NHL goal leader Auston Matthews.
Sandin got to know Kallgren during some summer skates in Stockholm after the latter signed a two-year, two-way contract with the organization in May.
“He was OK,” the 22-year-old defenceman deadpanned of Tuesday’s showing. “He made some really good saves, he looked really confident.
“Really happy for him.”
Sandin was also one of the first Leafs to learn Kallgren would be joining the group last Thursday with struggling No. 1 goalie Jack Campbell nursing a rib injury.
“He texted me for the schedule and asked me how to get into the rink,” Sandin said. “Letting him in here, that was how I figured out he was called up.”
Jake Oettinger, meanwhile, was solid in stopping 36 shots for Dallas (32-23-3) as he looks to continue cementing himself in the Stars’ top job.
“This is what I’ve dreamed about my whole life, to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL,” said the 23-year-old. “They’ve given me every opportunity.”
With the struggling Campbell out and a wobbly Petr Mrazek the Leafs’ only other option, Kallgren got the nod for a team that entered with an NHL-worst 88.1 save percentage at 5 on 5 since Jan. 1.
“It’s a hard game to play when you’re pulling the puck out of your net all the time,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “(But) even when our goaltenders have had some tough days, the players in front of them have a major and massive responsibility to do a good job in front.”
Kallgren, who made seven saves in relief of a shaky Mrazek in Thursday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes in his NHL debut, is the fourth Leafs goalie – and first since Garret Sparks in November 2015 – to record a shutout in his first NHL start.
“Just tried to not think too much,” said Kallgren, who was greeted with a water-bottle shower from teammates in Toronto’s locker room.
“Shutout for first game,” Kase said. “It’s a dream.”
Toronto was without Matthews after he was suspended two games for a cross-check to the neck of Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Buffalo at the outdoor Heritage Classic in Hamilton – a contest where Mrazek was squarely at fault on the winning goal.
Tuesday also marked the first NHL game featuring both Leafs rookie forward Nick Robertson and older brother Jason, who leads the Stars with 30 goals and sits second with 55 points.
Sporting a 15-8-1 record with a .904 save percentage for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Kallgren made a good stop on the Stars’ first shot on a 2-on-1 before the Leafs took a 1-0 lead.
Keefe, who was forced to alter his top-6 forward group minus the team’s best player, saw his new No. 1 line connect at 7:22 of the first when Tavares – occupying Matthews’ role – and Marner found Sandin off the rush for the defenceman to score his fifth on the Leafs’ first attempt on target.
The home side made it 2-0 at 11:16 following an offensive zone faceoff when William Nylander’s effort struck Tavares in the skate and slid past Oettinger for the Toronto captain’s 20th.
Signed after helping Vaxjo HC win last season’s Swedish Hockey League title, Kallgren was solid the rest of the period before having to make a pair of nice saves on Radek Faska in the dying seconds.
Toronto, which had given up at least four goals in each of its last six games – and 10 of its past 12 – coming into Tuesday, killed off a trio of penalties in the second.
“A lot of the saves were stuff from the perimeter,” Keefe said of Kallgren. “But he made sure that they just stuck to him and settled our team down.
Kase made it 3-0 just 52 seconds into the third on a Leafs’ power play when Rielly brought the puck down the right side before feeding the winger in the slot for him to one-time his 13th
Oettinger kept the Stars within striking distance a few minutes later with an outrageous glove save against the grain on a one-handed deflected effort from Nylander.
Dallas pushed late in regulation, but the Kallgren was there at every turn, offering some much-needed crease calm to a roster that provided its best defensive effort in weeks before Mikheyev sealed it with his 11th with Oettinger on the bench.
“That’s what we’re capable of doing,” Keefe said of the patient, 60-minute effort. “We’re capable of rallying around a situation, whether it’s Erik being in the net or whether it’s Auston not playing – whatever it is – we have that capability of putting together a real nice, responsible game.”
Asked following his debut against Arizona if he sees a real opportunity to take hold of a job that didn’t look available a week ago, Kallgren was posed a similar question.
He once chose his words carefully.
“I’m gonna take this very day by day,” Kallgren said. “I’m still just trying to enjoy this to be up here.
“Try to not think too much.”
Keefe, meanwhile, also attempted to pour cold water on any hype around his rookie netminder, knowing full well that will be nearly impossible in hockey’s biggest market.
“Let’s let the paint dry on this one here a little bit.”
Tuesday was by no means a goaltending masterpiece – it didn’t have to be – but Kallgren provided the Leafs exactly what they needed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2022.
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