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Learning from the best

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Dustin Tokarski played fewer games this year than he ever has in his career, but he’s never learned more than he did in 2014-15.

After sliding between the pipes as a surprise replacement for injured starter Carey Price last spring, Dustin Tokarski parlayed his 2014 playoff performance into a permanent job with the Canadiens in the fall. Having previously won at every level he had ever played, the 25-year-old netminder was forced to adjust to a new role in Montreal – one that saw him perched on a stool next to the players’ bench in a Habs cap for over 80 percent of the team’s games.

With stints of four, five, or even 11 games between starts at times throughout the year, Tokarski was forced to add a new skill to his repertoire this season: patience. Gladly waiting his turn as Price tore up the league and set a new franchise record with 44 wins, Tokarski showed no signs of rust whenever he did get the call, despite the long layoffs.

“That was my challenge this year. It was my first year being a sure-fire backup to the best goalie in the world. It’s just a mental thing,” shared Tokarski, who posted a 2.75 goals-against average and .910 save percentage to go with a 6-6-4 record. “On a game day when I’m not playing, I’ll do the same things – take a nap, eat the same pre-game meal – as if I were playing. The key is preparing every day as if I’m going to play just so when I do go in there, it’s not a big change.”

Case in point, Tokarski went over a month without seeing any action following a game against the Sabres in November, but still managed to allow just one goal in a 2-1 shootout win against the Panthers to close out the calendar year on December 30.

“A lot of credit goes to [Canadiens goaltending coach] Stephane Waite and Carey Price. They treated me great and gave me a lot of support, which helped whenever I got a start,” said Tokarski, who finished among the league’s Top 15 netminders with three shootout wins this season. “The thing about Steph that’s so great is he doesn’t try to change your whole game. He just tweaks parts of it. For me, being 5-foot-11, I’m not the biggest guy so he stressed staying on my feet and staying in control but staying aggressive at the same time.”

In addition to logging extra practice time and video sessions with Waite throughout the season, Tokarski also managed to learn by playing behind the best goalie in the world on a daily basis. With a front row seat for Price’s record-setting season, he managed to pick up a few tricks of the trade in his first year sharing the crease with the probable Vezina and Hart Trophy winner.

“It’s everything, from the start of the year to the end – his preparation, his leadership, his skills,” described Tokarski on what he learned from playing alongside Price. “It’s hard to say really, because there’s so much. I’m just trying to keep my eyes open. He’s extremely smart in what he does: playing the puck, where he’s putting rebounds, planting a little interference on players in around the net. Those little things add up throughout the year.

“The stuff Carey does in the room, the stuff on the ice; there are a lot of really small things that only a goaltender would probably pick up,” he added. “But I notice it and try to learn from all of it.”

Earning a half-dozen of the team’s 50 wins this season, Tokarski allowed two or fewer goals in seven of his 16 starts, narrowly missing out on playing the minimum 25 games he needed to be eligible to see his name etched alongside Price’s on the Jennings Trophy. While he knows sharing a net with Price likely means he won’t see that workload climb significantly in the near future, the Watson, SK native will be ready to make the most of whatever ice time he gets in 2015-16.

“I felt like I gave the team a chance to win most nights, but I’m always looking to improve and I want to have an even better year next year,” explained Tokarski, who won gold with Canada’s World Junior squad in 2009, in addition to winning the Telus Cup in Midget, the Memorial Cup in Junior, and the Calder Cup in the AHL during his climb to the NHL ranks. “My goal is to just work hard and learn as much as I can and help the team win whenever I get the call.”

Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.

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