By Allan Muir
It was the question that had all of Montreal guessing: Would goalie Carey Price start Game 2 tonight for the Canadiens?
They won't like the answer.
After nearly 48 hours of speculation, it finally was confirmed this morning that the gold medal-winning keeper will be out of action for the duration of the Eastern Conference Final after suffering a right knee injury when Rangers forward Chris Kreider collided with him in Game 1.
"We've lost our best player, but we've faced adversity this year already," said coach Michel Therrien.
Maybe they have, but nothing quite on this scale. This is a devastating blow for the Canadiens, a team that has first-hand experience with the effects of playing without a star goalie. The Habs breezed through their first round meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that never found its footing without the steadying presence of Vezina Trophy nominee Ben Bishop.
Now it's the Canadiens who will have to advance without a star goalie.
Third-stringer Dustin Tokarski and backup Peter Budaj were on the ice at the team's optional morning skate on Monday. Therrien wouldn't reveal who he would start in place of Price, but there may have been a clue. Tokarski set up in the home goal for practice, typically the spot occupied by the starter. But it was Budaj who left the ice first, another sign of an impending start. Do these mixed signals hint at Therrien's own uncertainty? Or is he hiding the fact that he's ready to roll the dice with the Hamilton Bulldogs ace?
Seems crazy...but at this point he has nothing to lose.
It's no disrespect to the rest of the club to suggest that the Habs are all but dead in the water without Price. He's not just their best player. He's their leader. His calming presence bonds them and carries them through those stretches when they're the second-best team on the ice, which they were for much of the Boston series.
You know what you're going to get from Budaj. And it ain't that.
Budaj was 10-8-3 in 21 appearances this season with a 2.51 GAA and .909 save percentage. Perfectly reasonable for a backup, but nothing to suggest that he has another gear with a season on the line.
His career numbers against the Rangers are fairly salty (3-1-0, 2.18 GAA, .920 save percentage and one shutout), but those were regular-season games. Given a chance to keep his team close in that hideous 7-2 loss in Game 1, he allowed three goals to the Blueshirts on just eight shots.
He's not the answer. And maybe neither is Tokarski.
The 24-year-old farmhand is wildly unproven in the NHL. He made three appearances for Montreal this season, going 2-0 with a .946 save percentage and a 1.84 GAA. He stopped 39 of 42 shots to lead the Habs to 4-3 OT win over the Ducks on March 5, then posted a 29-save shutout of the Sabres on March 16.
Not exactly a significant sample. But look at the road he traveled to get here.
In 2008, Tokarski was named top goaltender and tournament MVP after leading the Spokane Chiefs to the Memorial Cup. He dazzled with a 53-save performance against the favored Kitchener Rangers in the final.
The following December, he backstopped Team Canada to the World Junior Championship. After struggling early in the tournament, he was at his best when it mattered most, beating the Americans in the crossover game, then holding the fort in a classic come-from-behind 6-5 shootout win over Russia in the semis. He then shut down the Swedes in the final, stopping 39 of 40 shots as Canada clinched its most recent WJC title with a 5-1 win.
In 2012, Tokarski went 12-2 with a 1.46 GAA and a .944 save percentage to backstop the Norfolk Admirals to their first-ever Calder Cup championship.
What does all that mean? Maybe nothing. There are plenty of guys out there who have won junior or minor league championships and wound up manning the pipes in a Tuesday night beer league in Mississauga.
But you can say this much about Tokarski: given a chance, he's found a way to carry his team all the way on three of hockey's most pressure-packed stages.
Budaj's a good guy and a loyal solider. But he's not a winner.
Seems like a pretty simple choice for Therrien then, doesn't it?
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