By Brian Cazeneuve
Imagine you are Dustin Tokarski. You are 24 and you have played in only 10 regular-season NHL games during your brief professional career. You are making your playoff debut for the Montreal Canadiens in the second game of the Eastern Conference finals. Your opponent in the opposite goal is Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, perhaps the league's finest netminder. Lundqvist has appeared in 82 straight playoff games and played like a wall for the past four as his team, inspired a tragedy, came together and gained an undeniable momentum that has made it the favorite to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final.
Are you sweating yet?
Tokarski was pressed into service on Monday after Carey Price, the Canadiens’ regular ace goaltender, was deemed unable to play the rest of the series after suffering an injury in Saturday’s Game 1 loss. Price hurt his right leg when Rangers forward Chris Kreider fell and slid into him. With Price gone, the Rangers tested Tokarski with 30 shots and beat him three times. At the other end, Lundqvist, who is playing some of the best hockey of his life, made 40 saves and put the Rangers in control of this series as they head back home to New York.
Here are some thoughts and observations from the Rangers’ 3-1 victory in Game 2:
Rangers-Canadiens Game 2 recap | Box Score | Series breakdown
• As expected, the Canadiens, who were horridly flat in Game 1, launched an early push that had the Rangers scrambling at the beginning of the first period. Montreal took a 13-4 lead in shots on goal and broke through for the game’s first goal. Forward Max Pacioretty drove to the net and took advantage when Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello lost track of the puck in his skates. Pacioretty then beat Lundqvist at 6:14.
• The crowd in Montreal had barely finished cheering for the goal when the lead vanished 17 seconds later. Tokarski caught a bad break as Ryan McDonagh’s point shot deflected off the backside of Habs defenseman Josh Gorges and into the net to even the score.
• Later in the period, the Rangers capitalized on an odd-man rush that began with Kreider, whose speed forced the Canadiens' defense to back up, and ended with Rick Nash blasting a 30-footer through Tokarski’s pads and into the net. It was the one goal of the three he allowed that he really should have stopped.
• Apart from Nash’s goal, Tokarski wasn’t bad. Montreal coach Michel Therrien had Peter Budaj, Price’s normal back-up, at his disposal, but went with his untested player. Tokarski, who was the MVP of the 2008 Memorial Cup tournament while playing for Spokane of the CHL and the netminder to Team Canada's World Junior Championship squad later that year, also led the Norfolk Admirals to the American Hockey League championship in 2012, so the Canadiens were hoping he could translate some of his performances in big games at lower levels into NHL playoff success, just as Anaheim rookie John Gibson did last week when he shut out the L.A. Kings. It might be a bit much to expect him to duplicate what Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy did in Canadiens jerseys in 1971 and 1986 (win the Stanley Cup) before they were officially classified as rookies. In any case, history doesn’t always repeat itself, especially if you don’t help your goalie...
• The Canadiens, who frustrated the Boston Bruins in the previous series, displayed a lack of discipline as the game began to get away from them once the Rangers matched their initial push. Shortly after he was knocked down away from the play, Montreal’s Thomas Vanek took a slashing penalty – think Paul Bunyan chopping mighty timber – against McDonagh at 14:22 of the first period, and in the second, P.K. Subban was handed a roughing penalty for throwing a retaliatory punch at Ranger forward Derek Stepan. Neither infraction led to a New York goal -- Montreal was burned after Alex Galchenyuk got called for tripping Carl Hagelin, more on that in a bit -- but the Canadiens’ even-tempered approach to scrums had been a huge asset in their previous series, and they spent a lot of time in between games against the Rangers talking about how they had to maintain their cool and not get carried away with emotion. Somehow that message was lost.
• While the crowd showered Kreider with boos, the Canadiens weren’t necessarily trying to exact revenge on the Rangers for Price's injury, but they did make it a point to go hard to New York's net. In the first period, Nash was forced to slow Habs forward Brendan Gallagher by dragging him into Lundqvist as he charged to the Rangers' goal.
• One day after delivering a moving eulogy for his late mother, Martin St. Louis added a power-play goal for the Rangers with Galchenyuk in the box at 8:03 of the second period, cleverly finding a hole in the Montreal defense and beating Tokarski with a one-timer from close range. That 0-for-34 slump the Rangers once had with the man advantage is now long gone. They are moving the puck very well and generating chances from both high and low instead of relying on their point men to take all the shots.
• How good has Lundqvist been? It isn’t just the saves he has been making, but the way he is managing to track pucks under duress. With just under five minutes left to play in the game, the Canadiens went on a power play after New York's Benoit Pouliot took a foolish penalty for boarding. Therrien pulled Tokarski, giving his team a six-on-four advantage. With an extra man able to set up behind the top of New York’s defensive box, the Rangers were unable to be aggressive against Montreal’s point men. The Canadiens moved the puck very effectively from side to side and used Andrei Markov, David Desharnais and Gallagher to obstruct Lundqvist’s vision. Yet each time, the Ranger goalie calmly found a seam to get a view of the shot. Beyond that, he is anticipating angles and passes, trusting his instincts and, ultimately, making saves whether they are easy or hard. In all, he made 10 of his stops while his club was shorthanded.
• Didn’t the Bell Centre used to be a house of horrors for Lundqvist? Right now, he could win games in any building. Without Price there to match him save for save, the Canadiens may be done.The Rangers did drop games three and four at Madison Square Garden in their previous round against the Penguins before rallying to win the series, but Lundqvist has stopped 60 of the 63 shots he's faced in two games against Montreal and has now won five straight contests. He doesn’t leave much room for doubt.
• Here are some other numbers: Before Monday night’s victory, the Rangers, apparently a team that doesn’t care for prosperity, had lost 13 straight games in which it had been leading in a playoff series. Second number: The team that has lost the first two games at home in a conference final series has not rallied to advance to the Cup final since 1945.
The Canadiens and Rangers will meet in Game 3 in New York at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday night (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).