Dustin Tokarski's having fun and the Montreal Canadiens have new life in NHL Eastern Conference final

NEW YORK – The dressing room was too small, and Dustin Tokarski was too short, just 5-feet-11. So the reporters gathered in the hallway, and Tokarski stepped up on a milk crate wearing sandals, shorts, a T-shirt, a scruffy beard and a backward Montreal Canadiens cap. All around him were spotlights and cameras and voice recorders and microphones and boom mics – boom mics banging people in the head – as the questions flew at him like pucks.

Had someone told him a week ago he would start in goal for the Habs at Madison Square Garden, make 35 saves and steal a 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final, what would he have thought?

“I’d think they had a little too much to drink or something like that,” Tokarski said Thursday night, smiling. “But that’s what this sport’s all about. You never know what can happen. I’m just taking it all in right now.”

You might think about the pressure. You might think this is too much. The Canadiens lost star goaltender Carey Price to an injury suffered in Game 1, an awful 7-2 loss. Then they bypassed 31-year-old backup Peter Budaj, who had zero wins and an .843 save percentage in seven playoff appearances over his nine-year NHL career, and they turned to … Tokarski?

Tokarski grew up in Watson, Saskatchewan, a town of 700-some people two hours east of Saskatoon. Actually, he grew up on a farm 10 minutes outside of Watson. The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him in the fifth round in 2008, 122nd overall. He had spent the past five seasons in the American Hockey League, where he has posted an unremarkable .910 career save percentage. He had played only 10 NHL games – two for the Bolts in 2009-10, five for the Bolts in 2011-12, three for the Habs this season.

Now, at age 24, he was going to play for the most-storied team in the NHL in the most-frenzied market in the league at the most-intense time of year, and he was going to do it at the Bell Centre and the World’s Most Famous Arena against the likes of Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers.

But you know how Tokarski described it?

“Fun,” he said. “Awesome.”

This is what he envisioned as a kid, rooting for the Edmonton Oilers, the closest NHL team, eight hours away. “I just remember playing downstairs in the basement with parents or friends, playing with a sock ball or whatever you could,” he said. “Played out scenarios like I’m sure any other kid would.”

And this isn’t his first time in the big time. He moved away from home at age 14 to play AAA Midget. He went on to win a Memorial Cup, and a World Junior Hockey Championship title, and a Calder Cup. He went 2-0 with a 1.84 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and a shutout in his three games for the Habs this season, all in March. Small sample size? Yes. Risky decision to start him now? Yes. But with Price out, with Budaj a risk himself, what the hell? Why not?

“When you make a decision like that, first of all, it’s not one guy, honestly,” said Habs coach Michel Therrien. “As a group, we always work with the coaching staff, with the management. We all saw the same thing the same way with the kid’s background. The way that he played for us this year only a few times, we knew the kid was a winner.”

Tokarski didn’t win Game 2. The Canadiens outplayed the Rangers and lost, 3-1, because of Lundqvist. But Tokarski wasn’t rattled, and he didn’t get caught up in the craziness around him – the new Twitter followers, all the text messages. He checked his phone early Thursday morning, then shut it off. He had gotten only a half-hour pregame nap before Game 2; he got a full hour before Game 3. Progress. He said he definitely felt more comfortable.

The Canadiens came out flat in Game 3; the Rangers dominated early. But Tokarski kept making saves – 13 in the first period, 13 in the second, eight in the third, one in OT. Twice, he stoned two-time NHL scoring champ Martin St. Louis, lunging to his left, getting a glove on a shot. The second time, he did it with 55.1 seconds left in regulation, protecting a 2-1 lead. St. Louis just stared into space, as if he were saying: “Who is this guy?”

The only goals Tokarski allowed weren’t his fault. In the first, teammate Josh Gorges went down trying to block a pass on a 2-on-1 rush and slid into him. Gorges made a glove save on St. Louis, but the puck fluttered in the air. Carl Hagelin whacked it in. With 28.1 seconds left in regulation, Chris Kreider deflected a puck, and it went off the back of the right skate of Habs defenseman Alexei Emelin and into the net. That could have been a crusher, coming not long after Danny Briere had given the Habs a 2-1 lead, but Alex Galchenyuk scored 1:12 into OT.

“He made some huge saves,” said Canadiens captain Brian Gionta. “He kept us in that game. We had a rough start to that game. The first period, we couldn’t get anything going. They were bringing the play to us, and he stood on his head, made big save after big save. I thought that save on St. Louis towards the end of the game was a huge one. Stole that game.”

Can Tokarski steal three more? Or can the Canadiens simply find a way to win three more without Price? If they tie the series in Game 4 on Sunday night, they will go back to the Bell Centre with a chance to take a 3-2 series lead in Game 5 on Tuesday night. “Maybe we put some of the pressure back on them,” said Habs defenseman P.K. Subban. Maybe. We’ll see.

For now, this is just a great story – Tokarski getting his shot, Tokarski keeping the Habs’ hopes alive. He said he isn’t thinking about what this means for his future, just this series, this moment. He stayed on that milk crate long after the media herd started to thin, answering questions about what jobs he did (more like didn’t do) on the farm, with general manager Marc Bergevin watching and a PR guy waiting to whisk him away with a pat on the butt.

“This is the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Tokarski said. “It’s what you dream about – especially in overtime. So it’s a good feeling.”

Fun. Awesome.

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