LOS ANGELES — Now that the distraction of the trade deadline has come and gone, the Los Angeles Kings can now finish their regular season and look ahead to the future in earnest.
Part of that future might be rookie goaltender Erik Ersberg, who was recalled under emergency conditions from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League on February 21.
Ersberg shined in his first four appearances, earning a 1-1-2 record with a 1.68 goals-against average (GAA) and a .952 save percentage. His win, which was his first in the National Hockey League, came on March 6 in a 2-0 shutout victory over one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, the Ottawa Senators.
In that game, Ersberg was the number one star of the game, stopping forty shots and swallowing up rebounds as if he was covered with some kind of adhesive. Pucks seemed to stick to him, something that was a common theme for him throughout the four appearances.
“I try to challenge guys,” Ersberg explained. “I’m not so big, so I have to take away more of the net, move fast and take away rebounds.”
To be sure, making pucks stick to him certainly helps his team in a big way.
“It makes it a lot easier,” said Kings right wing Dustin Brown. “One, we don’t have to clear the rebounds and two, we get a lot of whistles, which allows us to get the right people out there in the right situations.”
Ersberg’s play has certainly made people stand up and take notice.
“It was a great effort by our team, but you can’t start talking about this game without talking our young goaltender,” Kings head coach Marc Crawford said after his team’s victory over the Senators. “That’s a terrific performance for him. He was just a calming influence all night.”
“When they had their chances in the third where they really put on their charge, they were throwing everything at us and getting all their people into the attack,” Crawford added. “I thought he was just so calm and collected back there. It was very, very nice to see that, coming from such a young goaltender who’s never won a game in the National Hockey League.”
“It’s always wonderful to get a win, it’s always wonderful for a goaltender to get his first win and you do it with a shutout, it’s got to be even more special. Then you do it against one of the top teams in the East—that’s terrific.”
The mild-mannered, soft-spoken native of Sala, Sweden seemed to take his first NHL win and his first NHL shutout all in stride, despite being mobbed by the media after the game.
“It feels good,” said Ersberg, the Kings’ first Swedish goaltender. “That was my first win, so it was really nice to get one. Finally. But wins are more important than shutouts, I guess.”
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little kid,” added Ersberg. “It’s a great opportunity to play in this league and show what you can do. It feels good to get some games up here. I’m happy for every game I get. That’s why I came over here—to play in this league. When you play a couple of games, you want to get more.”
As mentioned earlier, Ersberg is not the biggest goalie in the world at 5-11 and weighing a scant 182 pounds, so he has to be more aggressive than bigger netminders. And so far, he is getting the job done.
“When you contrast him to [Kings goalie] Jason [LaBarbera], who’s a big goalie who tries to block a lot of shots, [Ersberg is] more of a positional guy who’s got a great feel for the puck and does draw it into his body,” said Crawford.
“[Ersberg] made great saves for us,” said Brown. “They’re a high-powered offense and he did a great job. When you see him off the ice, he’s small. But the bottom line is that he stops the puck. When it comes to goaltending, that’s all that really matters.”
And on the visitor’s bench, the Sens also took notice of the rookie goalie at the other end of the ice.
“He played well, especially when we did get some shots, some rebounds and some traffic,” said Senators defenseman and assistant captain Chris Phillips. “He hung right in there.”
When the game ended, it was just after 7:00 AM in Sweden, but Ersberg was certain that his parents would be watching his first NHL win.
“My parents will probably watch it over the Internet,” he explained. “I think they record it and watch it later.”
But after his stellar outing against the Sens, Ersberg was brought back to Earth on Saturday afternoon in a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
In that game, he allowed four goals on just 22 shots, although he could not be blamed for any of them, with the first two goals coming off of deflections and the last two being the direct result of defensive breakdowns in front of him. To be sure, Ersberg turned 26 years of age on Saturday, but his teammates certainly weren’t helping him celebrate, at least, not on the ice.
Crawford’s assessment of his rookie netminder was that he was not as sharp as he was against Ottawa, but he was not laying the blame at Ersberg’s feet.
“We didn’t get as strong a goaltending performance as we got the night before,” said Crawford. “That was probably the difference in the game. But what can you do. There were two deflection goals—they were good deflection goals. The third one was the breakdown we had and we gave them a chance off the rush. And then we had a mistake in coverage at the end.”
“My point being was that he was outstanding the night before and [Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak] gave the outstanding performance today,” added Crawford.
Despite the loss on Saturday, Ersberg will get the lion’s share of the work in goal for the rest of the season, now that netminder Jason LaBarbera is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery last week to repair a sports hernia.
“It feels good to get some games here,” said Ersberg, who is now 1-1-2 with a 2.20 GAA and a .932 save percentage in five appearances. “I’m happy for every game I get. Obviously, that’s why I came over here, to play in this league. But we have a lot of good goalies on this team, so I’m happy to get the chance. It’s a great opportunity to play in this league, to get games in here and show what you can do.”
So where did this guy come from, anyway?
“We saw him last year at the World Championships,” Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall told the Associated Press. “We had him identified before that, and then we watched him there. We had a hole on our reserve list in that age group, so we took a shot at him.”
Ersberg was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on May 31, 2007. Prior to his recall, Ersberg had a 10-13-2 record in 30 appearances for the Monarchs this season, earning 2.92 goals-against average with a .897 save percentage.
Despite Ersberg’s performance so far, realistically speaking, playing well at the end of a season for a team going nowhere in terms of post-season play does not mean a whole lot.
“[Ersberg’s] athleticism and quickness are the best aspects of his game, as well as his lateral movement,” said Hextall. “He’s not the biggest guy, so he’s got to use his athletic ability. Obviously, this gives us a chance to look at him and gives him a chance to prove something. But I can’t imagine him locking up a spot for next season in these last 14 games.”
Indeed, Ersberg could wind up with the Kings next season, or he could even be just a flash in the pan like so many others have been. There are certainly a lot of factors involved in what the Kings’ goaltending future will be, including the fact that top goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier is waiting in the wings.
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