Eyes wide open, Tokarski settling in as Habs backup goaltender

 

 
 
 
 
Montreal Canadiens goalie Dustin Tokarski stops puck during warm-up prior to Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final playoff series against the New York Rangers in Montreal Monday May 19, 2014.
 

Montreal Canadiens goalie Dustin Tokarski stops puck during warm-up prior to Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final playoff series against the New York Rangers in Montreal Monday May 19, 2014.

Photograph by: John Mahoney, Montreal Gazette

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If a goaltender is lucky, the old hockey saying goes, he might have a horseshoe in his pants, or thereabouts. So maybe Dustin Tokarski had the next best thing on Wednesday.

The Canadiens’ backup goalie had tugged off his wet jersey in the Habs’ Brossard dressing room after practice when he reached beneath his bulky upper-body protector and dug a hand inside.

“Hey, look what I found,” Tokarski said with a grin, magically producing a puck and tossing it on the bench behind his seat.

In the scrambles of a hard practice, six ounces of vulcanized rubber had somehow found its way into the netminder’s equipment and, deciding that it had been slapped around enough, quietly made itself at home.

And no, Tokarski said with a laugh to the suggestion as he shed his pads, this wasn’t how he makes a few extra bucks — tucking away hockey pucks at practice, like a squirrel buries autumn nuts, to sell them on the side.

Life has changed dramatically, and yet it hasn’t at all, for the 25-year-old netminder from Watson, Sask.

Tokarski had been a playoff revelation last season, pressed into emergency service for Games 2-6 of the Canadiens’ Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers.

That he got the call to play for the injured Carey Price instead of Peter Budaj, the team’s veteran backup, was a surprise, and then some.

Tokarski arrived at training camp saying all the right things:

“I try not to get involved in the business part of things and how the operations work,” he said on Sept. 18, the first day of camp.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’ll try to let my play speak for itself. I have to play well, play good in practices, scrimmages and exhibition games, and go from there.”

In fact, it was Canadiens management that took the bold step. On Oct. 5, three days before the start of the season, GM Marc Bergevin traded Budaj and prospect Patrick Holland to the Winnipeg Jets for forward Eric Tangradi.

The message was clear: there would be no goaltending distraction going forward, Tokarski would be Price’s backup.

“To be honest, not a lot has changed,” Tokarski said on Wednesday, pausing to chat before heading off for a post-practice stretch. “I’m just going day by day, trying to work hard. I’m probably saying the same things I was at training camp, but I don’t plan on changing anything.

“As I have throughout my career, I’m just focused on the day ahead — I work hard and enjoy and live in the moment. It’s a dream come true right now and I’m doing my best to work hard and stay here.”

It was Tokarski’s performance in the playoffs, and the way he battled during the pre-season, that earned him the confidence of management.

Now, he says, every day is a bit of an adventure, an education both in hockey and in life, of settling in, becoming a teammate, bonding with Price as backup to the No. 1.

“He’s a laid-back guy, real easy to get along with,” Tokarski said of Price. “I’m real appreciative of how he’s respected me and treated me. It’s going great.”

In Brossard, Tokarski sits directly across from his goaltending stablemate; at the Bell Centre downtown, they are side by side, with a bench between them for elbow room. Tokarski takes a good look at Price before and after practices and games, absorbing all that he can.

“Everyone prepares their own way. Carey does his thing and I do mine,” Tokarski said. “But I’m always trying to pick things up. I’m in a pretty lucky position to be able to watch him prepare and play. We’re different guys, different goalies, but I’m always trying to pick up stuff from him, to get better.”

Tokarski appeared in two of the Canadiens’ four games on the road to open this season, having played five in the playoffs and three before that during the regular season. In his shootout-game start against Washington and a period of mercy relief vs. Tampa Bay, he has a solid save percentage of .917 and a goals-against of 2.82.

As did Budaj before him, Tokarski uses every practice almost as a game, never certain when he’ll next get the call to play. Goaltending coach Stéphane Waite will give him a day’s notice, Tokarski says, which is fine with him, without any indication of how much work he’ll get this season.

“If I get in, great. If not, I’ll be here to support Carey. Being the backup, there’s a lot of time on the ice before and after practice,” said Tokarski, who played seven games with the Tampa Bay Lightning between 2009-12 before being acquired by the Canadiens.

“I haven’t been in this league that long so I’m fine-tuning things every day, working with Steph on little adjustments. The base of my game will stay the same, I don’t want to change that. But for me, being early in my NHL career, I’m trying to pick up stuff all the time, listening and working with Steph a lot.”

Tokarski hasn’t yet found himself a place to fully unpack, living a little out of a suitcase.

“I’m just starting the venture, looking at the options without being too familiar with a lot of things,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of learning right now.”

He’ll be eager to have his parents and sister come to Montreal for a look at the hockey madness of this city, and just now is beginning to steep himself in the rich goaltending history that is all around him in the Hall of Famers’ dressing room portraits.

Not immortalized in this gallery is Charlie Hodge, the dependable Habs goaler of the 1950s and ’60s who has been more influential in Tokarski’s career than any of the greats. It was Hodge, seven or eight years ago as a Tampa Bay scout in B.C., who convinced the Lightning to make Tokarski their fifth-round pick in the 2008 entry draft.

Tokarski has never met Hodge, “not that I know of,” but he hopes their paths might cross at month’s end when the Canadiens are out in Vancouver.

“You don’t think about who’s watching you in the stands,” Tokarski said. “You go on the ice and the rest will take care of itself because there’s always someone watching.”

And he’s intrigued by the fact that the man who championed him played goal for this club a half-century and longer ago, Hodge’s name on team plaques around the dressing room.

“This is a pretty historic place for a lot of players, right?” Tokarski said, scanning the likenesses of the legends that ring the room. “I know the basics, but I haven’t done all the research yet.

“I’m picking stuff up all the time,” he said, his stowaway puck at arm’s length. “And it’s good to have knowledge of the history of where you play. I plan on learning it.”

It will surely be a fascinating study, as will be that of the great many who will watch Tokarski evolve in the net.

dstubbs@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: Dave_Stubbs

 
 
 
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Montreal Canadiens goalie Dustin Tokarski stops puck during warm-up prior to Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final playoff series against the New York Rangers in Montreal Monday May 19, 2014.
 

Montreal Canadiens goalie Dustin Tokarski stops puck during warm-up prior to Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final playoff series against the New York Rangers in Montreal Monday May 19, 2014.

Photograph by: John Mahoney, Montreal Gazette

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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