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Budaj still held in high regard by Montreal teammates

by Arpon Basu

NEW YORK -- Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien and his staff knew there would be some politics involved when they decided to turn to rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski to take over the starting duties for the injured Carey Price prior to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final.

One of the most popular players in the Canadiens' dressing room is backup goaltender Peter Budaj, who has remained a backup while Tokarski became the toast of the NHL, at least for now. If someone wanted to coax a member of the Canadiens, just about any one, to start belting out compliments, the easiest way to do it would be to ask him about Budaj.

Therrien knew this, so before telling the hockey world that Tokarski would be his man for the foreseeable future, he had to know his decision would work in the room.

"When you make a final decision like that, I sat down with my captain [Brian Gionta] and Josh Gorges, and I explained why we were making the decision," Therrien said Friday at the Canadiens' hotel. "Both seemed to agree with the decision."

He said he had that conversation in the interests of maintaining proper communication, but it's highly doubtful he would have done the same had he decided to take a skater out of the lineup.

No, Budaj holds a special place in that room, and passing him over to go with Tokarski was a gutsy move by Therrien because of the possible implications it had on team chemistry, something anyone associated with the team has vaunted as a strength in this run through Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Canadiens center Lars Eller was asked what the impact was on that chemistry to see Budaj denied this opportunity, and Eller had trouble answering the question.

"What does it do?" he began. "Umm, I don't know. As a player, you just try to focus on yourself. You know what? I don't really know how to answer that one. It doesn't change anything from the players' perspective."

As Eller said those words, he began slowly backing away from reporters. The question clearly made him uncomfortable.

But when Alex Galchenyuk scored in overtime to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win in Game 3, cutting the New York Rangers' lead in the best-of-7 series to 2-1, most of the players streamed off the bench and made a beeline for Galchenyuk. Budaj went to see Tokarski, and gave him a heartfelt hug.

It's not hard to see why the Canadiens hold him in such high regard as they prepare for Game 4 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

"That's him," Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec said of Budaj. "Obviously he would love to play, but the way he takes it is great.

"If there's one guy in the hockey world who could take what happened in the best way, it's [Budaj]. I don't think there's any other player who could take it as well as he has. He's a real team guy. He's one of the best backup goalies I ever played with. He stays on the ice for so long every practice, every day. He doesn't have any optional practices or days off."

The Canadiens are still getting to know Tokarski, which is perfectly normal. Not only did the 24-year-old play just two regular-season games with Montreal, no one ever expected he would be in this position.

Therrien made his decision based on Tokarski's winning pedigree, something he proved by winning the 2008 Memorial Cup, the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship and the 2012 Calder Cup.

But all that was news to Eller.

"I didn't even know that," he said. "Now I know."

More important, Eller and his Canadiens teammates know that Tokarski is someone they can count on in these playoffs after his 35-save performance stole Game 3 and allowed Montreal to get back into the series.

Tokarski's first career playoff win was celebrated in the dressing room with a shaving cream pie in the face, an initiation that was apparently concocted solely by the person who delivered that pie in the visitors' dressing room at Madison Square Garden, forward Brendan Gallagher.

It was a nice moment caught on video for the world to see, but it might have also provided a glimpse of how the Canadiens view their new goalie. Yes, they would rather have Price behind them every night. But this kid from Watson, Saskatchewan, is quickly winning friends in the room, even though he's playing ahead of someone who is everyone's friend in that same room.

"He cares, but he's really cool about it," Eller said. "That's what you have to be as a goalie, I guess, and he's handled himself terrifically so far."

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