Flyers' Gustafsson back in the lineup

Posted: January 30, 2014

IN THE 33 consecutive days Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson was out of the lineup, he spent a good portion of the time watching hockey.

He watched his teammates on television in Western Canada after the holidays, while he was back in Philadelphia rehabbing a left knee sprain that sidelined him for 2 weeks.

He watched them in the press box at home games, agonizingly sitting as a healthy scratch while frequent sub Andrej Meszaros tore it up with nine points in six games.

"I told a few guys, I thought it would be a long time before I got back in the lineup," Gustafsson said. " 'Mez' was playing great. I feel sorry for him. It's tough being on the side - I know. He played so well."

Gustafsson, 25, also watched video of his first 20 games this season. And he spent plenty of time soul-searching.

"I want to find my game," Gustafsson said. "It's been a season of ups and downs. I'm just trying to look forward. My goal is obviously to be in the lineup every game for the rest of the season."

To say this has been a trying season for Gustafsson would be an understatement. In a year in which the Flyers expected him to make a jump and be a major contributor in their lineup, Gustafsson has been a healthy scratch 23 times. He missed eight games with the knee injury from Dec. 23 through Jan. 8.

Last night against Detroit - facing six fellow Swedes on the Red Wings' roster - Gustafsson played his second straight game. He logged nearly 23 minutes, had an assist and was a plus-2 in the Flyers' 5-0 victory.

Last week, he was listed as an emergency replacement for Sweden's Olympic roster along with teammate Nick Grossmann.

Flyers coach Craig Berube said he decided to switch Meszaros for Gustafsson before Saturday's blowout loss to Boston because he wasn't happy with Meszaros' defensive-zone play. Three multipoint games in 2 weeks wasn't enough to save Meszaros.

"His defensive play had fallen," Berube said. "I didn't like his game in Columbus, that's why I made the change. It's just what I did, [there were] all kinds of options."

For Gustafsson, it was the perfect opportunity to try to impress the coaching staff. The result was a disastrous, 6-1 blowout loss to the Bruins.

The main difference between Gustafsson and a full-time NHL player is not a physical attribute - although a better shot from the point wouldn't hurt. Instead, as Gustafsson believes, the difference lies in between his ears.

"I think it's confidence, being able to hold onto the puck, relax out there and be able to make the right decisions," Gustafsson said. "You've got to be composed, be poised with the puck. You need to join the rush, be able to make quick passes to forwards to get them up to the offensive zone.

"Being out helped a little bit, actually. You have way more time with the puck than you actually realize out there."

If you've spent any time watching Gustafsson's frustrating game, it is apparent the puck on his stick is more like a grenade than a piece of frozen vulcanized rubber with endless possibilities. He is a decent skater with above-average hands - an asset the Flyers desperately need - but Gustafsson can't ever seem to settle down enough to prevent turnovers that nail him to Berube's bench.

The Flyers want Gustafsson to hang onto the puck as much as possible.

Perhaps Gustafsson is constantly worried about losing his spot in the lineup. It has been a constant fear - since he was shuttled back and forth to the AHL over the previous three seasons.

Whatever the case, Gustafsson's plight is both a blessing and a curse: a positive in the sense that it is possible to overcome with experience and a serious detriment in that he is the only one who can play himself out of it. There is no tip or trick to gain the confidence to play in the NHL on a consistent basis.

"It is going to have to come from within myself," Gustafsson said. "You've got to trust yourself. It comes with confidence, experience and recognizing the situation."

For Gustafsson, like many Flyers, the clock is ticking. This is his fourth season with NHL exposure; he made his debut in 2010-11 and last night was his 82nd career game, giving him a full season's portfolio. He is a restricted free agent again this summer. And he is no longer young enough to be considered a commodity.

"I need to realize sometimes, you don't have time with the puck, but most of the time, you do," Gustafsson said. "That's what I've got to do. That's my game. It's simple. When I don't do that, I'm not going to play."

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