BUFFALO – Dustin Tokarski had been the class of the field at every single level of hockey. On Sunday night, he was sharp when it counted and picked up his first NHL shutout.
“It felt pretty good, not going to lie,” offered the Humboldt, SK native after his team dismissed the Buffalo Sabres 2-0 at the First Niagara Center. “The most important thing is to pick up two points for this team, and the shutout is just the icing on the cake.”
Called up to the Canadiens after Carey Price went down with a lower-body injury less than a month ago, Tokarski has seen limited action with the Habs. However, when he has played, he has played well. After posting a 4-3 shootout win against the league-leading Anaheim Ducks last week and relieving Peter Budaj in a game against the San Jose Sharks, Tokarski blanked an NHL team for the first time ever in his second start of the 2013-14 season. In 93 shots faced, including 29 on Sunday night, the former Calder Cup champion has only allowed five goals for a sparkling 0.946 saves percentage.
“We had a great start to the game and got an early lead. Then we made good decisions with the puck and even when we had a letdown, the kid was there to bail us out with a big save,” said head coach Michel Therrien, who made the call to give the start to the 24 year-old rather than veteran Peter Budaj hours after his team made its unlikely three-goal comeback against the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre. “He’s a young goalie I like a lot. He’s won at every level, has good technique, and is very combative in front of his net. He definitely deserved his shutout.”
To be fair, Tokarski was given a great chance to come out on the winning side thanks to his teammates’ excellent puck management. All four of Montreal’s forward lines were able to hog the disk deep in the Sabres zone, creating openings aplenty against the league’s lowest-ranked club.
“Our team had a good game overall against a team over there that is still playing with pride,” acknowledged forward Thomas Vanek. While Vanek continued to mesh well with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, he believes that he is still capable of finding an extra gear and finally light the lamp as a Hab. Returning to his former home, Vanek was honoured in the first period with a video compilation of his best plays as a Sabre playing on the Jumbotron.
“It was very nice. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was very classy of the Buffalo organization,” added the former 40-goal man, who broke into the league with the Sabres and played for the team until October 2013.
Perhaps Vanek’s biggest contribution to his new team is the depth he is able to bring to the line-up. Since the Austrian’s arrival, Coach Therrien has been able to ice three dangerous scoring lines and a tenacious checking line which can do its share of damage on and off the scoreboard. Dale Weise, member of the crash-and-bang unit also featuring Brandon Prust and Travis Moen, rushed the net in one of his first shifts of the game and banged home a loose puck behind Jhonas Enroth. Minutes later, Brendan Gallagher, who was replaced on the Desharnais line by Vanek, broke through the Sabres’ defense with Tomas Plekanec and doubled Montreal’s lead.
Up 2-0 at the first intermission, the Canadiens kept driving the play, out-shooting Buffalo 26-18 through 40 minutes of play. Ted Nolan, the wily head coach of the home team, tried a variety of tactics to attempt to salvage the game, including icing four forwards at once and sending a cherry-picker to the Montreal blueline for a breakaway pass. The latter tactic almost worked, as Cody Hodgson broke in alone on Tokarski, but a combination of the goaltender’s aggressive challenge and a spirited backcheck by the Canadiens defenders wiped out that particular scoring chance.
After snatching victory from the jaws of defeat just 24 hours prior, the Habs played a textbook game to finish the weekend up four important points.
“I think there are still areas to improve, but we are getting back to the way we want to play,” concluded Brendan Gallagher.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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