It obviously matters little to Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien that goalie Dustin Tokarski isn’t a household name in the National Hockey League.
What matters most when your team is in the Eastern Conference final is winning, and Tokarski has been good at that since he played midget hockey and later for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League.
The 24-year-old spent all but three NHL games this season with the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hamilton, but was summoned from the Bulldogs before it was announced Monday that Montreal’s No. 1 goalie Carey Price would miss the balance of the series against the New York Rangers with a suspected right leg injury.
Therrien gave Tokarski the start Monday night over regular Canadiens backup Peter Budaj, who sports a 5.13 goals-against average and .853 save percentage in seven NHL post-season games. He relieved Price in Saturday’s 7-2 series-opening loss to the Rangers, allowing three goals on eight shots in his 2014 playoff debut.
Tokarski allowed three goals on 30 shots in Monday's 3-1 loss and was outperformed by Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 40 of 41 shots.
Calling on Tokarski was a gutsy call by Therrien, given that the puckstopper hadn’t played in a month and only once since April 5.
But it worked 11 days ago for Anaheim bench boss Bruce Boudreau, who promoted rookie goaltender John Gibson from Norfolk of the AHL to make his NHL playoff debut in place of injured Frederik Andersen and the Pittsburgh native shut out the Los Angeles Kings to even the Western Conference semifinal at two games apiece.
Therrien, for one, wouldn’t have been surprised if Tokarski, who hails from Humboldt, Sask., stood out. Like Gibson, he was an unknown commodity to his opponent.
It was Tokarski who stopped 39 shots in regulation and overtime in his Canadiens debut on March 5, a 4-3 victory over the Ducks, the NHL’s top team at the time. It was a rare start with Budaj getting a night off and Price nursing a lower-body injury after returning from the Sochi Olympics.
1st NHL shutout
Tokarski also shone March 16 in Buffalo, where he pitched a 29-save shutout in a 2-0 win, the first NHL shutout of Tokarski’s career. In three regular-season games with Montreal, he had a 1.84 GAA and .946 save percentage.
Overall, Tokarski’s NHL resume is decent but was a small sample (10 games, 2.93, .902) prior to Monday’s contest.
The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him in the fifth round (122nd overall) in 2008, one month after Tokarski backstopped Spokane to the Canadian junior hockey championship.
He made 53 saves in a 4-1 Memorial Cup win over the hometown Kitchener Rangers, stopping 89 of 91 shots against Kitchener in the tournament. Tokarski was named the tourney’s most valuable player and top goalie.
Before that, he won a Canadian midget championship with the Prince Albert Mintos in 2006.
During the 2008-09 season, his last with Spokane, Tokarski was the starting goalie for Canada at the world junior championship in Ottawa. He made 39 saves against Sweden in a 5-1 gold-medal win, a record fifth in a row for the Canadians.
After leaving Spokane following the 2008-09 season, Tokarski spent three seasons in the AHL with Norfolk, minding the net for 146 games and posting a 80-56-7 mark with a 2.33 GAA.
His final game for the Admirals was a 6-1 drubbing of the Toronto Marlies during which Tokarski kicked aside 18 of 19 shots and allowed only four goals in the four-game sweep. He won 12 of 14 playoff starts that spring with a 1.45 GAA and .944 save percentage.
He went on to play 33 games with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL until Tampa Bay traded him to Montreal on Feb. 14, 2013 for fellow goalie Cedrick Desjardins.
Tokarski gave the Bulldogs a glimpse of their short-term future in goal, winning six of his 15 games following his arrival in Hamilton with a 2.22 GAA and .927 save percentage.
Tokarski wasn’t far off those totals in 41 appearances this season (2.38, .919), earning himself an AHL all-star nod and two-year contract extension.
But all that matters to the Canadiens and their fans was how Tokarski handled Monday’s game and perhaps a few more before a Stanley Cup champion is crowned.