NEW YORK — Dustin Tokarski wasn’t standing on top of the world following the Montreal Canadiens’ 3-2 overtime win Thursday night, but he was standing on top of a milk crate.
The 24-year-old just played the game of his life, and there simply was not enough room in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden to handle the media swell he commanded. He didn’t have much to say, offering mostly cliché answers about not getting too high or low and his teammates in front of him playing well, but the raised platform helped the 5'11" goaltender address the crowd.
He was asked what about his life had changed in three days since he was thrust into the spotlight after Carey Price suffered a right knee injury that will sideline him for the rest of the series.
“I got a few Twitter followers, so that was kind of cool,” Tokarski said. “I don’t even know for sure. A couple thousand, maybe."
After saving the Canadiens’ season with a 35-save performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final that trimmed the New York Rangers’ lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1, he’ll probably wake up Friday with a few more Twitter followers.
It was nearly a storybook finish for Tokarski, who made an unbelievable glove save on Martin St. Louis with 56 seconds remaining in regulation to preserve a 2-1 lead for the Canadiens. He pushed to his left and extended his catching glove just far enough to get a piece of a shot that would have tied the score.
The dream ending to a nearly perfect game instead turned into a nightmare, as the Rangers were the beneficiaries of a lucky bounce after a Chris Kreider deflection caromed off the skate of Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin and into the net with 28.1 seconds remaining that sent the game to overtime.
There were no words of encouragement for Tokarski in the locker room following a stomach punch of a conclusion to regulation. No one had a heart to heart or even offered a “don’t worry about it” for the veteran of 11 NHL games before Thursday night.
“We all knew amongst ourselves that we owed him,” said Daniel Briere.
“You don’t feel bad; it’s an unlucky bounce,” PK Subban added. “What are you going to do? It happens. But the way he responded, being ready, being sharp, not getting upset.
“In the postseason, everybody’s got to worry about their game. You can’t be worried about anybody else, what they’re doing. You have to focus what you can control, and that’s how you play. Collectively, if everybody does that, we’ll have success.
“The last thing I have to worry about is how he’s stopping the puck.”
It ceased to be an issue as Alex Galchenyuk scored 1:12 into overtime, not long after Tokarski made his only save of the extra session against Brad Richards.
Tokarski on if someone told him last week he'd be starting for the Habs: "I’d think they had a little too much to drink or something."— James Mirtle (@mirtle) May 23, 2014
Subban has seen firsthand what Tokarski can do on a big stage, as the pair were teammates on Canada’s entry into the 2009 World Junior Championships. Tokarski and Subban won gold together that year as Canada defeated Sweden 5-1 in the championship game.
That was the second of Tokarski’s three championships at lower levels. He won a Calder Cup with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals in 2012, posting a .944 save percentage in the playoffs.
Tokarski was the MVP of the Memorial Cup in 2008, guiding the Spokane Chiefs to a junior title.
It’s understandable when coach Michel Therrien says he chose the inexperienced Tokarski over the more seasoned Peter Budaj because the former is a “winner,” but perhaps there’s something to be said for climbing the mountain on a smaller scale and how that can translate at the sport’s highest level.
Tokarski hasn’t climbed the mountain yet, but he certainly climbed the milk crate Thursday night.
“Dustin Tokarski was phenomenal tonight,” Therrien said. “He’s a battler and most important thing, he’s a winner. You got to give a lot of credit to the Rangers; they got out of the gate tonight like we did at the Bell Centre our last game and we weathered the storm. I felt that the team played with more confidence as the game went on.
“But without Tokarski’s performance, probably the result would have been different.”
The Canadiens were outshot 14-4 in the first period and trailed 1-0 at the intermission. The only goal that managed to get past Tokarski was the result of Subban fumbling the puck in the offensive zone and Josh Gorges wiping him out with a slide that would have sent the city of Montreal into a tizzy if it was Kreider.
Tokarski could not regain his position in time as Carl Hagelin knocked the puck out of mid-air and into the net.
That was all Tokarski would allow until Kreider’s bank shot sent the game into overtime. In the interim, he shut down another glorious St. Louis chance with a sprawling glove save and denied a Rick Nash wraparound as he stopped all 13 shots he faced in the second period to hold the score at 1-1.
All the Canadiens wanted when they arrived in New York down 2-0 was a chance to get back in this series, and Tokarski did all that in more while outplaying Henrik Lundqvist at the other end of the ice.
“I think the way he performed today,” Subban said, “I think he can only get better and I’m sure he’s only going to get better.”
That could be a scary proposition for a Rangers team that suddenly finds itself in a competitive series.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.