Dustin Tokarski has won championships at every level of the game, but outplaying Henrik Lundqvist and saving the Montreal Canadiens playoffs hopes seemed a little too much to ask. But all the 24-year-old did was deliver in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.
All right, so Dustin Tokarski has won a Memorial Cup in junior hockey, a gold medal in the World Junior Championship and a Calder Cup in the American League. And as of now, he’s outplayed Henrik Lundqvist (albeit in just one game) and had former teammate Martin St-Louis shaking his head in frustration. And when the Montreal Canadiens season looked grim, he gave them a reason to believe.
He’s also Exhibit ‘A’ in the argument that you mamas should never let your babies grow up to be goalies. The kid is 24 years old and it took him this long and two organizations to prove that he could play in this league. And he’s still stuck behind the established star in Carey Price and a very well liked backup in Peter Budaj.
There is no doubt now that Tokarski is the primary reason this Eastern Conference final has gone from being a New York Ranger coronation into a competitive series. The Rangers are probably still feeling pretty good about their chances after firing 37 shots at Tokarski and outplaying the Canadiens badly in Game 3, but you never know with these goalies when they put on that Canadiens sweater. Remember Steve Penney? Remember Patrick Roy posting the worst save percentage of his career in 1985-86, then leading the Canadiens to the championship? Georges Vezina was discovered while the Canadiens were on a barnstorming tour and stopped in Chicoutimi. Bill Durnan wasn’t good enough to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and was plucked out of senior hockey. And Ken Dryden was playing Jr. B hockey when the Boston Bruins traded his rights to the Canadiens for two nobodies in 1965, six years before he played in the NHL.
(Tokarski, meanwhile, was traded to the Canadiens from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013 for fellow goaltending prospect Cedrick (The Entertainer) Desjardins.)
If Tokarski should continue to play this well and outduel King Henrik to create another Habs goaltending legend, it will be interesting to see what the Canadiens have in store for him. Not in the short-term, of course. When Scott Oake of Hockey Night in Canada said in a post-game interview that he was betting Tokarski would start Game 4, he responded by saying, “Me too.” After being just good in a Game 2 loss to the Rangers, Tokarski delivered the otherworldly kind of goaltending the Canadiens are going to need if they have any hope of winning this series.
So what more does this guy have to do to play in the NHL as a regular? Well, a change of position might help. There is a glut of talent at the goaltending position. Always has been. That has been the case since the days when there were only six NHL jobs to current day when there are 60. The confluence of events that has to happen for a guy to nail down one of those 60 jobs is staggering.
Just look at Tokarski. Despite the fact he has been a member of the Canadiens organization for only a year, he did not come out of nowhere. In the 2008 Memorial Cup final, Tokarski stopped 53 shots to lead the Chiefs to a 4-1 win over the Kitchener Rangers, earning him both top goaltender and MVP honors. The next year, Tokarski struggled early in the World Junior Championship, then stopped 39 shots in the final as Canada defeated Sweden 5-1.
At the pro level, Tokarski seized the No. 1 goaltending job in the playoffs with the Norfolk Admirals, posting 12 wins to lead the Admirals to the Calder Cup. And in the conference and league final he went 8-0 and gave up just six goals, posting a .972 save percentage.
If I’m Budaj, I’m getting a little nervous about my place on this team at the moment. The Canadiens have him under contract for one more year at $1.4 million, but if Tokarski can somehow get the Canadiens past the Rangers, you’d have to believe he’ll be taking Budaj’s spot as Price’s backup next season. (The one thing that could save Budaj is the fact that Price loves him. He said earlier this season that Budaj is the best backup he has ever had.)
We know Tokarski will be starting Game 4, but we don’t know whether the Canadiens will have Brandon Prust or the Rangers will have Dan Carcillo. Opinion seemed to be split on whether Prust’s first period hit on Derek Stepan was a headshot, but it was late and it was reckless. If the league sees it as a hit to the head, Prust will be watching Game 4 from the press box.
The league also has to determine whether Carcillo’s attempts to manhandle linesman Scott Driscoll amount to abuse of official and a three-game suspension. Seems strange to say, but the absence of either Prust or Carcillo will have an effect on their teams. Both have been effective when they’ve played between the whistles.
Players such as Prust and Carcillo will not decide this series, though. It looks like it could be decided by whether or not a relative unknown minor leaguer can continue to be one goal better than one of the best goalies or our time.