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Goaltender Markkanen can relate to Tokarski's rise

by Tal Pinchevsky

With 10 games of prior NHL experience, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Dustin Tokarski stopped 27 of 30 shots Monday in a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Montreal fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-7 series, which continues Thursday with Game 3 at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m.; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Making his Stanley Cup Playoff debut, the loss was a surreal experience for the 24-year-old, one to which former NHL goaltender Jussi Markkanen can relate.

More than two months removed from his most recent NHL appearance, Tokarski was thrust into the spotlight of the playoffs after Canadiens starter Carey Price was injured in Game 1.

Markkanen knows firsthand what it feels like to be dropped so suddenly onto hockey's biggest stage, perhaps more than anyone else.

Now playing for SaiPa, his hometown team in the Finnish SM-Liiga, Markkanen hasn't played in the NHL since the 2006-07 season. But when the Edmonton Oilers made the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, he was thrust into the spotlight.

Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson sprained his right knee in a Game 1 collision with Carolina Hurricanes forward Andrew Ladd, forcing backup Ty Conklin to finish the game, which Carolina won 5-4.

After being a healthy scratch in Game 1, Markkanen was informed by Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish that the Oilers would be turning to the Finnish goaltender.

"After that game, when Roloson got hurt, [MacTavish] asked me into his office. He just said, 'It's your show, go and get it.' He kind of told me that he trusted me from the next game to the end. Don't worry about it and just play and enjoy," Markkanen told "It just happened so quick that you don't really think about it. You live in that moment. You just go there. I felt like emotionally I was there and the guys really helped me. They did everything they can to make it easy for me, to show that they trust me."

Markkanen hadn't played in more than two months and his previous playoff experience was less than 14 minutes in relief of starter Tommy Salo in Game 2 of the 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Dallas Stars. That night in Edmonton, Dallas scored 36 seconds after Markkanen entered the game to wrap up a 6-1 win.

Three years later in the Cup Final, Markkanen made the most of his next playoff opportunity.

"You have to put yourself in game mode, which is not easy, but at least you were mentally ready. My approach was basically that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So you might as well enjoy it and see where it gets you," Markkanen said. "You look at those guys every day, how hard they battle to get there. You just wish you can emotionally join them. That feeling of how much it takes to win and how much they suffered to get us there, you want to be a part of it. You try to make the most of your opportunity."

Markkanen's first playoff start didn't go well. He allowed five goals on 26 shots and Carolina won Game 2 5-0.

From that moment on, the Finn shined.

In the final five games, Markkanen had a 1.60 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. Trailing 3-2 in the series, he stopped all 16 shots he faced in Game 6 for his first playoff shutout, a 4-0 win.

"I got a lot of support during that time," Markkanen said. "A lot of people said under the circumstances you played really good, having to jump in dead cold after not having played for a long time, and gave the team a chance to win. You can't get much closer than that. I always describe it like the best two weeks of my hockey career, and then the worst feeling afterward because you lost. When you get that close and you know how many things have to go right to get there, to finish empty-handed is an empty feeling. That's what sports are."

Carolina jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 7 and held on in the third before Justin Williams scored into an empty net to secure a 3-1 win and a Stanley Cup championship. The loss brought to a close an incredible two weeks of towering highs and cavernous lows for Markkanen, who took his career to Europe after playing 22 games for the Oilers in 2006-07.

Closing out his hockey career in Finland, Markkanen admits to knowing very little about Tokarski's unlikely path to the Eastern Conference Final.

"The best advice is to just try to enjoy it. The best place where a hockey player can be is in the Stanley Cup Final or West or East Final," he said. "Might as well enjoy it and make the most of it. Everything else comes with it. Everybody else will do their part and it might be enough, who knows?"

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