It isn’t easy being a goalie on the Montreal Canadiens; not only is the team the often-called a “storied franchise” (a goalie needs big shoulders to carry that), but the fans, and even the media, can be pretty critical. Now we’re all told that a game isn’t lost or won by the goalie.
But is that really true?
When the Habs lost Carey Price in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, it seemed the world was imploding. It was actually, in retrospect, the probable reason the scoreboard was so unbalanced with a 7-2 win for the New York Rangers.
Price was run early in the second period, clearly affected as he lay on the ice for a few heart-stopping moments and sat for the third period. How could the monumental possibility of losing him in net not have shaken everyone on the team?
It was assumed that Coach Michel Therrien would go with backup goalie Peter Budaj, who stepped into net that first game. When whispers of Dustin Tokarski began to float through the Twittersphere, fans were aghast.
A relatively untried playoff goalie in net for the Habs in the ECF? Was Therrien kidding? (It isn’t easy being a coach for the Canadiens either but that’s a whole other article.)
The media scrambled to do coach Therrien’s justifications for him: Tokarski came with a pedigree. He had won the Memorial Cup in juniors 2008, the Calder Cup in the AHL in 2012 and had already shown his mettle while stepping into net on the West Coast trip with the Canadiens. He held off the Anaheim Ducks in a shootout and had already won the admiration of his teammates, coaching staff and fans.
But this was different. This is the Cup. The Cup. Could he do it?
He faced a lot of adversity in doubters. Game 2 was a loss for the Habs, but those who really took in the game, and the reasons there were goals scored against Tokarski, stepped up and stopped the Blame Game for the most part. The loss was in no way attributed to Tokarski.
As I said, a game is not won or lost by the goalie, and the Habs didn’t score that night.
Game 3 was a must-win. And as we all know, the playoffs are where “anything happens” (it feels as though that should be in quotation marks — it’s used so often it’s almost a motto of hockey). And we also know there is usually a story — sometimes of the game, sometimes of the series.
Dustin Tokarski is the story of this round. He faced a lot of pressure. But from the beginning of Game 2 and all through Game 3, it was clear that this is a man who can not only face the pressure, but who combats it with a calm, collected demeanor reminiscent of (dare I say it?) Carey Price.
It took Game 3 for him to be noticed by everyone — and that really does mean everyone. From the American media to the Canadian, from the doubters on social media to those who didn’t even follow hockey but had heard about “the kid in net for Montreal” — he became a star.
The NHL, CBC and RDS (the French network televising the games) all awarded him one of the three stars at the end of the game. He was in high demand for interviews.
Why this game? Because the Canadiens won, staying alive and cutting the Rangers’ lead in half?
It’s because this time, obviously being tested more as the Habs played well in front of him, Tokarski made those big saves that truly make a netminder stand out. There were shifts in which he was peppered with shots from every angle, every point, practically every player, and he consistently stopped them with acrobatic skills and eagle-eye perception.
His humility in interviews is remarkable. Yet even as he deflected compliments, praising his teammates, he found it difficult to keep the grin from shining through.
He not only proved his worth, but he is now firmly anchored as an important part of this team. I think this young man has a bright future with the Canadiens organization, and from the smiles on his face postgame, it is clear he couldn’t be happier.