Gibson steps up in NHL debut

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BROOKLYN – It would be hard to blame former Orlando Solar Bears’ goaltender Christopher Gibson if, even at just 23 years old, he thought his best opportunity to make his National Hockey League debut had come and gone.

Gibson, traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the New York Islanders prior to the start of this season, watched as Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau both received NHL recalls – and in Sparks’ case, playing time – while he toiled away with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.

But, even as he was posting an impressive 11-5-3 record, 1.99 goals against average and .928 save percentage for the Sound Tigers while his former teammates were getting opportunities elsewhere, he says he wasn’t looking back, only forward.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think about it in that way,” Gibson told after backing up fellow ECHL alum Thomas Greiss in the Islanders 6-5 victory over the Dallas Stars on Sunday.

“I got traded, and there was a reason why I got traded. My chances are here, this is my team now. I was more than happy to see ‘Sparksy’ get in games and for Bibeau to get some experience too. I have nothing negative to say, and I was really happy for those two guys.”

But it’s certainly been an interesting year for the Karkkila, Finland native. After spending his first two professional seasons in the Maple Leafs system – he split time with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and ECHL’s Solar Bears in 2013-14 before playing with the Marlies all of last year – he was dealt on Sept. 17 along with a slew of other prospects in exchange for Michael Grabner.

“Of course, the beginning of the year was pretty tough with all the changes in organizations,” he said.

“That was the first time in my career that I’d ever been traded, so I had to adjust a few things. But once the games started going, we have a good group of guys in Bridgeport and they work hard. The beginning of our season went really well, and I’m happy with my games and I feel like they’ve been getting better and better. But I still have to get better every day. So I’m pretty happy with it, but I’m also happy to be up here and getting this experience.”

Gibson became the 582nd player in ECHL history to play in the National Hockey League after playing in the nation’s premier ‘AA’ hockey league when he debuted in relief of Greiss in Pittsburgh on Jan. 2. He played the final 29:03, allowing just one goal to Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist while stopping 16 of the 17 shots he faced.

“I was nervous at the beginning for sure, but after a few shots and the goal, I said to myself that I have to step up now,” he said. “Once I got calmed down a little bit, I told myself it’s time to play and that I’d worked hard for this opportunity, so it was time to show what I can do. I was happy with my third period.”

The 6-foot-1, 190 pound netminder is just two seasons removed from playing in 20 games with Orlando, where he posted a 3.16 goals against average and .892 save percentage.

“Orlando, it was good,” he said. “I got to play a lot there, but I was upset every time I went down there from the Marlies. But it was a great experience and it pushed me to want to stay in the AHL. I was lucky to play a full season last year with the Marlies, and now I get to keep going in the AHL and now here.”

In all likelihood, Gibson’s latest NHL recall will be a brief one. Another ECHL alum, regular starter Jaroslav Halak, seems to be close to a return from injury, and Gibson will likely be headed back to Bridgeport sooner rather than later.

“I just need to keep doing what I’m doing; trying to get better every single day and work hard,” he said.

“Hopefully, one day if I can get that real chance, then hopefully I can show what I can do and that’ll be enough.”