By all accounts, it was all doom and gloom around the Montreal Canadiens after it was announced that Carey Price was done for the duration of the Eastern Conference final, suffering a Game 1 injury in a collision with Chris Kreider. His absence left the Habs with two options:
A. Go with Peter Budaj, of the seven career Stanley Cup playoff appearances and the 17 goals allowed on 108 shots – an .843 save percentage. Go with known commodity that might not lose you a game, but probably won’t win you a series.
B. Go with Dustin Tokarski, of the zero career Stanley Cup playoff appearances and the 10 career NHL games. Go with the unknown commodity, but one that at least inspires a semblance of hope as a rookie wild card entering Game 2.
Some will say it’s a bold move. We'd say it’s the only move.
Tokarski has the chance to inspire something, to reignite the feelings of purpose that flowed through the Canadiens after they thwarted the Boston Bruins – when everyone in the room was complaining about respect and lack thereof – then were wiped away after Kreider wiped out into Price.
Maybe they know tales of his 2012 run to the Calder Cup with Norfolk, posting a 1.46 goals-against average, a .944 save percentage and three shutouts. That he’s led a team to victory while Budaj, dependable worker bee that he is, has one AHL playoff game and a few Olympic and world championship appearances to his credit.
We’ve seen this before in the playoffs. After Freddie Andersen went down for the Anaheim Ducks in their series against the Los Angeles Kings, Bruce Boudreau gave John Gibson the start over Jonas Hiller in Game 4 of their series. Gibson was awesome in Games 4 and 5 before losing Game 6 and 7 to the resurgent Kings.
But he inspired the team and changed the conversation at a time when they needed both. Ultimately for the Ducks, as it is with the Canadiens now, it comes down to how the team in front of him plays.
But it goes beyond the résumé. As Chris Johnston of Sportsnet points out, Tokarski gives the Habs an advantage in goal over Budaj:
Not only did he surrender three power-play goals on eight shots to the Rangers after relieving Price on Saturday afternoon, he has never registered a victory in a Stanley Cup playoff game. Over seven appearances, he has a .843 save percentage.
Tokarski spent the past season playing in the American Hockey League for a weak Hamilton Bulldogs team and still posted a respectable .919 save percentage. He was also rock solid in his first three NHL appearances for the Habs, which included a 39-save victory at Anaheim and a shutout in Buffalo.
We'll know the impact of this decision on Monday night as the Canadiens try to even the series, but the move inspires some obvious questions:
Does playing Tokarski have the Habs circling the wagons tighter in their own zone around a rookie goalie?
Does playing Tokarski, perhaps, have the Rangers even more convinced they have this thing in the bag? Does he infect them with "backup goalie syndrome" as they play down to the hobbled competition?
Neither one of these goalies is Carey Price, which is why the Canadiens will still likely lose this series. But only one of them might convince Montreal they can overcome Price’s absence and continue this journey into the Stanley Cup Final. And it ain’t Peter Budaj.