MONTREAL — It’s a long way from Watson, Sask., to New York City in every sense. In terms of sheer distance, it’s 3,325 kilometres as the Winnebago flies.
Watson is a wide spot in the road, 200 kilometres due north of Regina. Population 719, fewer than you get in your average Manhattan office tower. It’s at the junction of two highways, helpfully numbered Highway 5 and Highway 6. The town’s website boasts a photograph of a grain elevator, and the municipal slogan is: “Small Town Today, Your Town Tomorrow.”
We’re not saying it’s flat, but it’s is the kind of country that prompted a Calgary fan at the Grey Cup in Regina a few years back to peer west from the stadium and say, “I think I can see my house from here.”
It’s also the hometown of a young man named Dustin Tokarski, who was a wee bit busy in Manhattan Thursday evening, leading the Canadiens to a 3-2 win in overtime over the New York Rangers, breathing life into his team and forcing the Rangers to stow those brooms they were going to bring out for the anticipated sweep Sunday night.
Before the game, I happened to catch Tokarski’s mother Darlene on CBC Radio. Darlene revealed that Tokarski grew up playing sock-ball hockey, that he was easy to raise because she could get him to do anything (clean his room, learn to swim) by telling him he could play hockey after — and that his nickname is “Tic” as in Tic-Tock.
Tokarski’s timing was exquisite Thursday. He stopped 35 of 37 shots and the two that beat him were of the bounce-and-deflect variety.
Darlene probably missed most of them. She revealed that, while Tokarski’s father Mark remains glued to the television throughout the game, she often has to step out of the room. In what situations does she have to get away?
“Whenever the puck gets close to him,” she said.
The puck was often close to the 24-year-old goaltender in Game 3, but with his team trailing 2-0 in the series and fans wishing fervently that Carey Price had not been injured in Game 1, Tokarski made stop after stop, especially during a first-period barrage when it looked as though the Habs might be run right out of the rink.
As the saves mounted, you sensed Tokarski’s teammates begin to stiffen in front of him. They began to believe in him. He could do this. They could do this.
Tokarski, as coach Michel Therrien said after, is a battler. He’ll scramble, he’ll challenge you. In that sense, he resembles Jaro Halak, but he is bigger and stronger than Halak. Part of any goaltender’s job is to persuade his teammates to have faith in him. At some point Thursday, they began to do that. Tokarski doesn’t exude Price’s calm, but he was pretty cool, given the situation, and he did what he had to do.
Even after the apparent disaster of a Chris Kreider shot that went in off Alexei Yemelin’s skate to tie it at 2-2 with half a minute to play, Tokarski kept his head. Good thing he did, because the Rangers had another scoring chance before the end of the third period — and a goal then would have crushed the hearts of the Canadiens.
Save a nod too for Alex Galchenyuk, tossed into the pressure cooker after being out two months, generating the winning goal when the clock had barely begun to tick in overtime. It was a courageous performance from Galchenyuk and the Canadiens got an even larger turn from Brendan Gallagher, the team’s emotional leader all night long.
Gallagher, who is looking more and more like a young man who will wear the “C” some day, was in the face of the Rangers (and in Henrik Lundqvist’s kitchen) all night long. He is one of the most fearless players you will see this side of Steve Bégin.
Nor was the contribution all from the youngsters. Andrei Markov might never have scored a bigger goal than the one he got to break the ice for the Canadiens with the Rangers leading. The longer it took to break through against Lundqvist the more it was going to play into the heads of Markov’s teammates, so he took care of business.
Throughout the playoffs, Markov and Emelin have been the strongest defensive pairing and it is the steady Markov who leads the way. Meanwhile Daniel Brière did what he has done all spring, score big goals and justify Marc Bergevin’s decision to sign him.
None of it would have mattered without Tokarski’s steady play. After playing so well through the first two rounds, the Canadiens won’t be embarrassed by a third-round sweep. They have now matched their best run since 1993 by winning nine playoff games, the same total they put up with Halak in 2010.
And they’re not through. A little confidence goes a long way. Now we have a series. Maybe the Habs win it, maybe they don’t. But they have shown they can win a game on the road against the Rangers — a huge step.
Because young M. Tokarski gave it to his team Thursday, there is no doubt who will be in goal for Game 4 at Madison Square Garden Sunday night.
No doubt Darlene Tokarski will be watching. As long as the puck doesn’t come near her son.
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