Canadiens goalie Dustin Tokarski leads teammates Mike Weaver, David Desharnais and Michael Bournival from the dressing room for warm-ups prior to Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final playoff series against the New York Rangers in Montreal Monday May 19, 2014. Tokarski was a surprise starter in place of the injured Carey Price.
Photograph by: John Mahoney, The Gazette
MONTREAL — It was a riverboat gambler’s move. Part bluff, part hunch, part sound reasoning, part desperation.
And totally cool, win or lose.
Michel Therrien needed brass cojones to go with 24-year-old rookie Dustin Tokarski over 31-year-old veteran Peter Budaj in Monday night’s Game 2 against the Rangers.
But when your day starts with the news that all-world goalie Carey Price is out for the series, it can’t get worse — and a gamble might make it better. It didn’t work, but Tokarski was not the goat in a 3-1 loss that put the New York Rangers squarely in the driver’s seat as the series moves back to Manhattan for Thursday’s Game 3.
If you need someone to blame, hang it on Chris Kreider, whose accidental-on-purpose tumble into Price in Game 1 already looks like the decisive play in this series. Or Thomas Vanek, who appears to be suffering from a sprained Minnesota and a broken Wild. When your skates are still in Montreal but your head is in Minnesota, you might as well be a healthy scratch.
Technically, the Canadiens aren’t in an impossible situation down 2-0. They had the Rangers down by that margin in 1996 and New York came back to win the next four. With Price, that might be possible. With Tokarski and/or Budaj, it will be a surprise if we see another game in Montreal this season.
Not that anyone was disappointed with Tokarski’s play. “I liked his presence,” Therrien said after. “We went with him because of his track record — because he’s a winner. He played well.”
So did Tokarski’s teammates — but Therrien was right when he said Henrik Lundqvist was “phenomenal – really phenomenal.” Lundqvist stopped 40 of 41 shots. He blunted a powerful Montreal attack in the first period, when the Habs came out flying before Max Pacioretty scored the game’s first goal.
But New York got that one back 17 seconds later on what Rangers coach Alain Vigneault termed a “lucky goal.” The lead was Montreal’s first in this series but it had the shelf life of a politician’s promise: Ryan McDonagh (there’s that name again, a thorn in the side of every Canadiens fan) evened it 17 seconds later, with Mats Zuccarello screening Tokarski.
Then came the one Tokarski wished he could have back — a low shot from 20 feet out from Rick Nash. It was a hard shot but Tokarski saw it clearly and should have had it. Chalk this one up to NHL speed: “I expected him to hold it a bit more,” Tokarski said as he faced the mass of cameras in the room after. “I would have liked to beat the pass and get there sooner.”
Tokarski will learn. But this is learning in the pressure cauldron of a conference final, with one of the league’s elite goaltenders in the opposing net.
It was obviously a tough moment for Budaj, but by all accounts, he handled it well. “He supported me all day,” Tokarski said.
Given Budaj’s playoff numbers, he couldn’t really complain about the decision: seven appearances, 17 goals on 108 shots, an .843 save percentage and a coyote-ugly 5.13 goals-against.
Obviously, Tokarski was excited to get the chance after he learned Monday morning that he would play. He tried to have his pre-game nap with so-so results: “I laid down for maybe two hours,” he said. “But out of that, I maybe slept half an hour.”
Tokarski also got support from Price himself. “He shook my hand and told me go to out and play my game and be a warrior,” Tokarski said.
He did that, but the truth is backup goaltenders don’t win too many conference finals.
Therrien is right when he says the Canadiens need some breaks. They got a terrible break when Price went down and another bad break Monday night when Alex Galchenyuk was flagged on an awful tripping call, leading to Martin St. Louis’s back-breaking power-play goal that made it 3-1.
Therrien stopped short of criticizing the officials for that one, although he did say that if they had a chance to review it they would probably reverse the call. “To win, you need some breaks and some calls,” he said, “and we aren’t getting the breaks.”
The coach sounded more optimistic than most fans are feeling right about now. “Momentum can change very fast,” he said. “I liked the way we played tonight. Henrik Lundqvist stole this game but our team was very motivated. We started the game exactly like I wanted.”
But the Canadiens lost some momentum when Vanek took a dumb slashing play that negated a power play. Vanek passed up a couple of good looks, failed to compete at key moments and generally looked like a player who is trying to protect the merchandise ahead of free agency.
At this time of year, the margins are so narrow that if you have one guy playing like that, it can be all the opposition needs to win a series. That — and to be facing a backup goaltender.
Therrien did not discuss which of his backups will get the nod Thursday in New York. At this point, truth be told, it may be that it no longer matters.
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