Show of hands: how many people, when hearing Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price was out for the foreseeable future, thought there was absolutely no way the team could beat the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals?
I’m going to assume this was the belief of many people. And, honestly, why wouldn’t it be?
You’ve got a team losing a goalie who, two months ago, helped his country win a gold medal in the Sochi Olympics. As backup options, Montreal had journeyman Peter Budaj and raw rookie Dustin Tokarski. Even though Budaj has been in the league for eight years, he had just as many playoff wins as Tokarski, which would be zero. Not exactly confidence-boosting stuff right there.
In the end, the Canadiens went with Tokarski, giving him his first ever NHL playoff appearance. And though the Rangers prevailed, winning the series 4-2 last night, the Habs rookie goalie should hardly feel sorry for himself.
Before Game 2, Tokarski’s playoff experience was no different than yours or mine, just a lot of watching from home. All the sudden he gets the call, with Montreal saying, “Hey kid, we think you give us the best shot at getting to the Cup Finals.” How’s that for a reality check?
And yet, while the Canadiens head home after an unsuccessful series, Tokarski has no reason to hang his head. Only twice in five games did his save percentage dip below .900. No, this isn’t the stat line of a top goalie, but consider he had only played in three games this entire season before the playoffs and I’d like to think it makes this number more significant. His worst performance, allowing four goals on 27 shots in Game 5, still resulted in a Montreal victory.
He saved his best performance for last, though. Sure, the Canadiens lost Game 6 last night, but Tokarski did everything he possibly could to keep his team alive. The Rangers fired 32 shots at him, and he only let one go by. Tokarski faced his fair share of breakaways and odd-man rushes, and still only gave up one goal. Anyone who would fault him for Dominic Moore’s second period goal and label him as the scapegoat clearly wasn’t watching the game.
At the end of the day, I doubt the praise would make Tokarski feel any better. Montreal’s Cup drought continues, and as well as their inexperienced goalie played in such a high-pressure situation, winning the series was obviously a bigger goal than individual performance.
Tokarski’s play will in no way result in his supplanting of Price as the Canadiens’ starting goalie. That said, the team knows a lot more about a player who barely touched the ice for them this season. They know there’s no situation too overwhelming for Tokarski, that if they lose Price for any significant time in the future, they have someone in the wings who can keep the club afloat.
It doesn’t put Montreal in the Cup Finals, but Tokarski’s performance was as good as you can ask from someone in such a high-pressure situation. For that, he can look back at this series with pride.