Game changer

Friday, 23.05.2014 / 1:00 AM canadiens.com

NEW YORK – Dustin Tokarski has made a career of coming up clutch in big games. The NHL Playoffs have given him a chance to rise to yet another occasion.

When Carey Price went down with a series-ending injury in Game 1 against the Rangers, Tokarski was watching the play from the comfort of the Bell Centre pressbox. Two days later, he was handed the keys to the Canadiens’ crease as the team’s newly-minted starter with some Olympic-sized skates to fill. He responded to the opportunity the way he always has: by giving his team a chance to win when the stakes are at their highest.

“I’ve seen him perform at some elite levels, especially at the World Juniors [in 2009], and I’ve seen him put on some pretty spectacular goaltending performances. The way he played tonight on this stage shows you what he can do at this level,” lauded P.K. Subban of the rookie netminder’s 35-save night in the 3-2 overtime win. “It’s a big boost for our hockey club. He made some saves where we were kind of looking at each other like, ‘Guys, we’ve got to wake up. He’s giving us an opportunity to continue to have success and we have to back him up.’”

Shutting the door as the Rangers buzzed early on, the 24-year-old played with poise beyond his years to help the Habs weather the storm and head into the break trailing 1-0 despite being outshot 14-4 in the opening frame. Now owning a .925 save percentage after kicking aside 62 of the 67 shots he’s faced in NHL postseason action, Tokarski has proven he’s ready for his chance to shine under an even brighter spotlight.

“Tokarski was phenomenal tonight. He’s a battler. The most important thing is he’s a winner,” confirmed head coach Michel Therrien, referencing the Humboldt, SK native’s Telus Cup, Memorial Cup, World Junior and Calder Cup successes over the years. “You have to give a lot of credit to the Rangers. They came out of the gate tonight like we did at the Bell Centre last game. Our team played with more confidence as the game went on, but without Tokarski’s performance, the result probably would have been different.”

While it looked as though the Habs were on their way to closing out the game in regulation on the heels of a Daniel Briere goal late in the third, a lucky bounce off Alexei Emelin’s skate with 29 seconds to go forced the Canadiens to head to the dressing room to regroup for overtime instead of celebrating. Alex Galchenyuk needed just over a minute to score his first of the postseason, becoming the youngest player to score an overtime goal in franchise history and giving Tokarski his first career NHL Playoff win in the process.

“It’s hard to describe what I felt there. I didn’t see it go in, I just knew it did. I skated toward the pile and cellied pretty hard,” described Tokarski, still grinning from ear-to-ear. “[During the intermission] a couple of veterans said, ‘We have to go get it.’ You can’t sit back and wait for mistakes. We had to come at them really hard and that’s what we did. [Galchenyuk] went to the net and we got a break.”

Standing on his makeshift, milk crate podium outside the dressing room at Madison Square Garden, surrounded by a few dozen reporters and TV cameras, it was clear Tokarski’s life has changed over the past few days. Far from crumbling under the pressure, the young netminder is reveling in the experience.

“It’s fun. It’s awesome. I got a few Twitter followers so that was kind of cool,” he joked, after seeing his account, @dustintokarski, grow by a few thousand almost overnight. “It’s been great. Just trying to build off the good things the guys did last game where we probably deserved a better fate. It was good to get the win tonight. Anytime you play well it helps you out for the long run. It was a battle all game. Blocked shots, clearing pucks, the penalty kill. It was a team effort.”

Readily sharing the glory after his first playoff win, Tokarski spent the majority of his postgame scrum deflecting credit back to his teammates, who helped him stay calm as he entered his NHL Playoff overtime debut.

“You don’t have a choice. Everything is on the line so you just go out there and play your game and hopefully get a break, and we did,” he explained. “There are always nerves, but they’re good nerves. It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s what you dream about, especially winning in overtime. It’s a great feeling.”

Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.

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