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Canadiens rookie goalie Tokarski faces daunting task

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- Dustin Tokarski said it calmly, as though he'd said it a thousand times before.

There was no quivering in his voice, no sense of regret.

It was just a matter-of-fact statement that perfectly sums up the situation in which the Montreal Canadiens and Tokarski, their new No. 1 goaltender, find themselves, down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers.

"He's a superstar at the other end and he played like it tonight," Tokarski said after losing 3-1 in his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday. "That was probably the difference."

That superstar is Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and Tokarski was forced to watch as one of the world's finest put on a clinic at the other end of the ice before he so much as had a shot attempted toward him.

Lundqvist stopped Rene Bourque on three straight shots from in tight less than a minute after the opening faceoff. He had to handle a Canadiens team energized by the desperation of needing to tie this series with its own world-class goalie, Carey Price, out for the series with an injured leg.

Meanwhile, Tokarski waited for that first shot, alone with his thoughts as his teammates did everything in their power to give the rookie goalie an early lead.

Lundqvist was making that difficult with five saves in the first three minutes of the game. He was being a superstar.

Eventually, at some point, Tokarski knew it would be his turn.

When it finally came, when Martin St. Louis found himself all alone in front of the net at 4:22 of the first period, Tokarski was a superstar for a brief moment in time.

The 21,273 fans in Bell Centre were waiting for that save all day, ever since Canadiens coach Michel Therrien announced following the morning skate that Price would be lost for the series. The cheer Tokarski got for making that one save was a rousing ovation of relief, one that said maybe this kid with no experience and the winning pedigree can do this after all.

The fans in this city have seen goalies come out of nowhere to do great things in the playoffs before, and there may have been a sense that Tokarski could be the latest in a long line of spring breakouts.

When the Canadiens took the lead at 6:14 on what was essentially a lucky bounce, with Lundqvist attempting to whack the puck out of harm's way and instead knocking it off Max Pacioretty and into his net, that relief turned into euphoria.

It lasted 17 seconds.

The very next shot Tokarski saw wound up behind him on an equally lucky bounce when defenseman Ryan McDonagh's shot from the point deflected off Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges, off the goal post to Tokarski's right and into the net.

That euphoria turned back to nervous energy in the building, and Tokarski had to do everything in his power not to allow the next goal.

Except Tokarski is not Lundqvist.

As the perennial all-star on the Rangers' side of the ice turned aside scoring chance after scoring chance, with Montreal outshooting New York 13-5 through 14 minutes of the first, Tokarski knew he couldn't flinch.

Then he did.

With a little more than a minute left in the first period, Rangers forward Chris Kreider, Public Enemy No. 1 in Montreal after he crashed into Price and knocked him out of the series, sent a cross-ice pass to Rick Nash.

Nash didn't get everything on his one-timer, but he didn't have to rip it. Shooters in the American Hockey League don't get shots off as quickly as Nash did, and Tokarski didn't get across his crease in time to make the save.

"I thought I played well, but I came up short with a few big saves," Tokarski said. "[Lundqvist] made a few more big saves, game-changers, than I did. That was the difference tonight."

That risks being the difference in this series, because there is no way Therrien can go back on his decision now.

He said he chose Tokarski to start Game 2 because he's a winner, a reputation earned by winning the Memorial Cup in 2008, the IIHF World Junior Championship in 2009 and the Calder Cup in 2012. The inference that can be drawn is that in Therrien's mind, regular backup goalie Peter Budaj is not.

It was a difficult, gutsy decision for Therrien to make. But he's made it, and now he has to ride it through this best-of-7 series.

The way Tokarski reacted to the loss in the Canadiens dressing room suggested he was comfortable with the stage. He called the nerves he felt before the game "good nerves" and the pressure he feels from the fan base to be "good pressure" -- things you would want to hear out of a rookie goalie.

But now he has two days to think about Game 3 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), much like he had all that time to think at the beginning of Game 2 while the Canadiens dominated play at the Rangers' end of the ice.

This is a whole new challenge, the biggest of his young career.

"In this building and in the shadows and having everyone talk about the loss of Carey, and I'm sure everyone's talking about how he has to be the savior and fill his boots and this that and the next, and it's a lot," Gorges said. "It's a lot to take in for a young guy. But if there's anyone who could do it, it's him."

The way Tokarski was able to calmly recognize the difference in the game Monday night suggests that might be true. Whether he will ever be able to come close to matching Lundqvist in this series is another matter altogether.

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