By Sarah Kwak
NEW YORK — It all ended with a play that seemed harmless. Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec took a shot from the top of the left circle. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist made a routine save…but the puck bounced off his paddle into a charging Alex Galchenyuk and then New York’s net.
Just like that, only 72 seconds into overtime, the Canadiens had taken Game 3 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, cutting the Rangers’ Eastern final series lead to two games to one with a 3-2 win.
Galchenyuk’s goal made for an anticlimactic finish considering the frantic final minutes of regulation that sent the game into OT in the first place. The Canadiens broke a 1-1 tie at 16:58 of the third period when Daniel Briere backhanded a puck into the crease and Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh inadvertently kicked the biscuit into his own net. From there, it was all about Dustin Tokarski, Montreal's 24-year-old rookie netminder who played spectacularly. His brilliant glove save on Martin St. Louis in the final minute of regulation seemed to seal the deal for the Habs.
But just moments later, Tokarski learned that sometimes playoff hockey takes its own meandering path. With only 29 seconds left in regulation, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi threw a sharp angle shot toward Montreal’s net from just above the goal line where winger Chris Kreider, screening, deflected the puck away from Tokarski’s pads and it ricocheted in off Canadiens defenseman Alex Emelin’s skate.
Suddenly, Tokarski was facing a potential second and devastating playoff loss despite making 34 saves and keeping the Canadiens in the game all night. But his teammates has other ideas. “We all knew amongst ourselves that we owed him,” Briere said. “For the way he kept us [in it], some of the big saves that he made, especially in the first period, to keep us [in it when] we didn’t have our legs …. We felt like we owed him one.”
In just a matter of a week, Tokarski went from a largely unknown rookie to the biggest surprise in the NHL. When Carey Price went down in Game 1, suffering an undisclosed injury after Kreider hit him skates-first, Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien didn’t call on backup Peter Budaj, who allowed three goals on 11 shots in relief of Price. For Game 3, he turned to Tokarski, who has a gleaming resume everywhere but in the NHL.
Tokarski won the Memorial Cup in juniors with Spokane before backstopping Canada to the gold medal in the 2009 World Junior Championship with 39 saves against Sweden in a 5-1 final. And he’s had success in the minors. In three games for Montreal during the regular season, he was excellent, averaging a .946 save percentage and 1.84 GAA in three games. But it’s still a thin resume for carrying a city's — or even a nation’s — postseason hopes. Still, the Canadiens had faith.
“He’s a battler, and most important thing, he’s a winner,” Therrien said. “We all saw the [situation] 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 …. Without Tokarski’s performance, probably the result would have been different [tonight].”
Indeed, during the first period, the Rangers fueled by their home crowd at the Garden came out roaring. When Canadiens forward Brandon Prust took a run at center Derek Stepan just three minutes into the game, a late hit that caught the Ranger in the chin, it only ratcheted up New York’s purpose. (Prust wasn’t penalized, and the NHL will take him to task. Stepan, left the ice to be evaluated after the hit, returned later in the period.)
The uptick in physicality unhinged Rangers forward Dan Carcillo. After taking a run at Prust, the winger got into an altercation with linesman Scott Driscoll, shoving him and looking like he wanted to fight. Carcillo was given a minor for charging, a game misconduct and, later, a 10-game suspension.
As for the hockey, though, New York dominated early, taking good and frequent looks at Tokarski and keeping the Canadiens chasing the play. Montreal managed just four shots in the first period, and to beat Lundqvist it is obvious that they'll have to pepper him with pucks.
The Rangers relied on their speed and took advantage of their breaks in the first period. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban whiffed on a shot in New York's zone, triggering swift-skating winger Carl Hagelin's two-on-one rush with Martin St. Louis. Seeing the threat, Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges went down early, hoping to take away Hagelin's passing lane, but the Swedish winger showed patience. While Gorges slid into Tokarski’s net, Hagelin dished the puck to St. Louis. While prone in the crease, Gorges made an unlikely glove save on the shot, but Hagelin batted the deflection into the net, giving the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Yet, despite New York’s many quality chances, that was the only puck they could put past Tokarski, who showed unflappable calm in the crease despite the pressure. Showered with shots and even being jostled a bit, he stood tall. When Kreider ran into him in the second period, there was no theatrical overreaction, not even a break in his concentration.
“Even though we don't know him too well, the organization and the goalie coach have a lot of trust in him,” Canadiens winger Brandon Prust said after the game. “I thought he would be maybe a little more nervous, maybe a little more, but he was joking around and chattering. You can tell he's been through it … [He’s] done a really good job.”
Almost single-handedly, Tokarski kept the Canadiens in the game long enough to let his teammates tie it early in second period when Montreal winger Max Pacioretty went cross-ice and put the puck squarely on the tape of defenseman Andrei Markov’s stick. The goal was the 35-year-old blueliner’s first playoff tally since 2008, and it woke up the Canadiens, who had just five shots on Lundqvist before their tying goal at 3:20 of the second period. Montreal finished with 24 shots. But the bottom line is that Tokarski kept the Canadiens alive. For how long remains to be seen. Game 4 is at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.