NEW YORK -- The Montreal Canadiens wanted to win this Eastern Conference Final for their goalie. They lost it by letting their other goalie down.
When Carey Price was lost for the series in Game 1, a 7-2 victory for the New York Rangers, the Canadiens hopes of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 21 years were essentially dashed in the minds of most.
The Canadiens, coming off their worst loss of these Stanley Cup Playoffs, said they wanted to win to give their superstar goaltender a chance to play again this season. But if there is one member of the Canadiens who can say he truly did that, it was the unknown figure who replaced Price.
Prior to this series Dustin Tokarski was best known to most hockey fans as the goaltender of the Canadian national junior team who drove hockey analyst Pierre McGuire to fits of enthusiasm at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championships. He was too small to be an NHL goalie, too unorthodox in style.
Yet here he was, thrust into a starring role on the second-biggest stage in hockey by Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, who made the difficult decision to use him to replace Price instead of regular backup Peter Budaj, an enormously popular player in the Montreal dressing room.
Therrien picked Tokarski because he was a winner, he said.
Tokarski played well enough in his first game, a 3-1 win by the Rangers in Game 2, but he allowed one goal he should have stopped and it turned out to be the winner on a night where Rangers counterpart Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding with 40 saves.
If it wasn't already obvious enough, that game made the enormous chasm separating Tokarski and Lundqvist appear that much wider.
The guy with the great hair and great suits and perfect technique and perfect everything in the Rangers' net made it clear where New York's biggest advantage in the series was once Price was out of the picture. The thought of Tokarski beating Lundqvist four times in five games was nearly unthinkable at the time.
Except that's exactly when Tokarski's winning pedigree that caused his coach to demonstrate such faith in him began to show. He made 35 saves to steal Game 3, a 3-2 overtime win at Madison Square Garden. He made 26 saves in Game 4 but 3-2 lost in overtime when the Canadiens failed multiple times to clear their zone and left Martin St. Louis all by himself with a clear path to the net. Then in Game 5 he allowed the Rangers to erase a 4-1 deficit to tie the game in the second period, but shut the door from that point onward in a 7-4 Canadiens victory that forced Game 6 at Madison Square Garden.
While Tokarski was making save after save in his own end Thursday, the guy with the perfect suits at the other end was twiddling his thumbs. Lundqvist did not face a real shot on goal until 14:52 of the first period when Alex Galchenyuk let go a dangerous backhander from the slot. By that point, Tokarski had already made 10 saves.
The Canadiens began the third period on the power play, trailing 1-0 and with their season on the line. But they did not get their first shot on goal until 9:03 had elapsed -- and that was a bouncer from the neutral zone by defenseman Francis Bouillon. They had managed all of three shots in the third period by the time Tokarski was pulled for an extra attacker with 1:53 left in regulation, and got two more on Lundqvist in a final flurry.
Tokarski stopped all 13 shots he faced in the third period and did everything he could possibly do to give the Canadiens a chance to fulfill what they set out to do -- to give Price another chance to play. The Canadiens did not hold up their end of the bargain.
"That's why we feel frustrated," forward Max Pacioretty said. "He bailed us out a bunch of times throughout the series since he jumped in, and tonight we got no pressure on Lundqvist. We weren't able to get pucks to the net, we weren't able to get bodies to the net. Obviously that's a good team over there, but we're a good team too and it felt like we didn't throw our best at them today."
Tokarski threw his best at the Rangers and more, going toe-to-toe with one of the best goaltenders in the world and coming up one second-period Dominic Moore shot short, a missed defensive assignment by the Canadiens at the end of one of the countless Rangers shifts in Game 6 that were spent entirely in the Montreal zone.
"The guys battled hard and gave it everything they got, just came up a hair short," Tokarski said. "It's pretty tough. I had this opportunity to be two wins away from a Cup Final, it's going to be hard to come by again. It was a heck of a series."
The matchup with Lundqvist suddenly didn't appear as lopsided as it did a week earlier. The Olympic-champion, All-Star goalie admitted it was a challenge for him to match what Tokarski was doing in the other crease over the course of the series, and particularly Thursday.
"You have to expect any goalie that comes in to play at this level, that they're going to be good," Lundqvist said. "They're going to help the team, and he definitely kept them in a lot of the games. So for me, I try to challenge myself and try to be better, but he was really good."
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said that by his count, the Canadiens had five scoring chances in the game; one in the first period, four in the second and none in the third.
With a season at stake, with a chance to force a Game 7 at Bell Centre to play for a trip to the Final, the Canadiens did not generate a single chance to score against Lundqvist in the final 20 minutes. A big reason for that was the play of the Rangers, who stifled the Canadiens and played what Therrien called a "defensively perfect game."
But when an unknown goaltender gets called upon to pull a team out of what appears to be an impossible situation and does so, his team owes him the same. The Rangers made it nearly impossible to get to their net Thursday, but the onus was on the Canadiens to make it happen regardless.
"We just couldn't seem to find anything to get what we needed in the third," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "Give them a little credit, they stayed on top of us, they didn't give us any clean looks or any opportunities to make clean plays.
"But in those situations you've got to do something."
The Canadiens began the series feeling they owed something to one goalie; they ended it feeling that way about two.
Ultimately, the Canadiens let both of them down.
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