Dustin Tokarski was thrown to the sharks. Or rather, to the New York Rangers.
Was Game 2 the opportunity of a lifetime for the 24-year-old netminder? You bet, but guys in his position typically only win in the movies. You can almost hear a creation team pitching the concept in a smoke-filled room full of producers.
"Just imagine it! A cold career minor-league goalie getting put in net for a must-win game in the Eastern Conference Final following a catastrophic butt-kicking in Game 1." The CBC might be working on the made-for-TV movie as we speak. We can't know for sure, but this we do know: The Montreal Canadiens gambled by icing Tokarski, and the gamble didn't pay off.
They're now facing down loan sharks in the form of a 0-2 deficit as the series shifts back to New York. It's not like head coach Michel Therrien pulled an accomplished netminder and rolled with a hapless youngster as a ploy to fire up his team. His hand was forced by Chris Kreider, who crashed into No. 1 goalie Carey Price in Game 1.
Now Montreal is forced to handle a less-than-ideal situation in goal as it tries to climb out of a brutally deep hole. Should the Canadiens stick with Tokarski, who made a few good saves early in Game 2 but finished with a so-so .900 save percentage?
That's one option. Therrien already made it clear that he likes the former fifth-round draft pick more than Peter Budaj. The bench boss wasn't alone in thinking that Tokarski would give his team the best chance to win Game 2.
Chris Johnston of Sportsnet wrote that "[t]he decision to turn to Dustin Tokarski for the remainder of the Eastern Conference final gives Therrien the best odds to come through for his fallen goaltender."
That's only part of the equation. The Canadiens can't just toss a new goalie in and hope for the best. They need to rally around him, and to some degree, they did that. They took 41 shots on goal and dominated through long stretches of play in the first and third periods.
New York once again came up with some clutch goals, though, including one just 17 seconds after Max Pacioretty opened the scoring 6:14 into the first period. You can't pin that tally on Tokarski. The puck deflected in off of Josh Gorges, and the netminder really didn't have a chance.
Therrien's options at this point are limited. Aside from cloning Price, he'll be forced to ice one of three netminders. He can either stick with Tokarski, or try his luck with Budaj or Devan Dubnyk. It only takes a cursory glance at the stats of Budaj and Dubnyk to make Tokarski seem like the best bet heading into Game 3.
Budaj has been an outstanding backup for Price, but he's not much more than that. His regular-season save percentage sat at .909. Not too shabby for a No. 2, but that won't get it done against this fired-up and emotional Rangers team.
While the backup hasn't spoken out, one could also assume that he's a little irritated after being passed on the depth chart by Tokarski after providing such a steady presence in net when Price had off nights. He's a professional, but would his head be in the right place if Therrien tapped him and said, "You're on"?
On the other hand, Dubnyk has gone from promising NHL starter to minor leaguer in less than 12 months. He was given not one, but two clean slates this season. He was first traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Nashville Predators in January before getting flipped for "future considerations" just two months later. He's been with the Hamilton Bulldogs since.
His .893 save percentage in the AHL since arriving in the system doesn't look too good, either. Dubnyk might not be a viable NHL goaltender right now, let alone a player you'd want to put in during the Eastern Conference Final.
So Montreal's season rests with Tokarski.
There are no other options. No bailouts coming and—barring a medical miracle or that Price clone—no All-World goalies ready to step in and save the day. It can't all fall on the netminder, either. The Canadiens need to rally around their new de facto No. 1, not just in the offensive zone, but in the defensive end as well.
It's a bit of a shaky stat sometimes, but Montreal needs to block more than the eight shots it got in front of in Game 2. Therrien made the adjustment of utilizing P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges against New York's quick first line, but the Rangers were still able to punch through the neutral zone with too much speed far too often as well.
Tokarski and Montreal's net will continue to be a focus moving forward. Kreider will continue to be vilified, but the fact remains that the Canadiens haven't done enough in the defensive end to take control of an entire game yet, let alone two consecutive periods.
They came ready to play in Game 2 and were outstanding in the first period, yet they still trailed 2-1 after the opening frame due to a handful of defensive breakdowns and terrible penalties. Roughs, trips and slashes aren't the kind of calls you want to be on the receiving end of. Thomas Vanek's slash on Ryan McDonagh at the end of the first is a great example of what the Canadiens must avoid.
It's not like Tokarski's record as a big-game goalie is shabby. He's won a Memorial Cup, a Calder Cup and has a World Junior Championship gold medal hanging in his trophy case. Mentally, he knows where to go and what to do to win when the spotlight is hot. He gives them a solid shot at winning; he just can't do it alone. Not like Price or Henrik Lundqvist can.
Now Tokarski's teammates need to find a way to step up for him or else this series could be quickly disintegrate into sweep territory. For seeds of hope, all the Canadiens need to do is look at who they are facing. The Rangers were down and out in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they rallied and found a way to win.
It's time for the Canadiens to buckle up and take care of Tokarski and the defensive zone before this postseason slips away from them for good.
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