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Rookie goalie Tokarski lifts Canadiens to Game 3 win

by Arpon Basu

NEW YORK -- Dustin Tokarski had just finished answering a barrage of questions from the media after earning his first-ever win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As he was about to walk off the pedestal he was standing on to head toward the visitors' dressing room at Madison Square Garden, he stopped suddenly.

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had called out to Tokarski.

Bergevin had waited patiently for his turn to speak with the young man who might have saved Montreal's season with a 35-save performance in a 3-2 win against the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

Tokarski quickly changed course and went to speak with Bergevin, away from the glare of the television cameras and recorders.

No one but those two men knows what was said in that conversation, but one thing can be safely assumed: Five days earlier, Tokarski never could have imagined in his wildest dreams he would be standing there being congratulated or thanked or encouraged by Bergevin after outplaying the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist to cut the Rangers' lead in the best-of-7 series to 2-1.

Tokarski was still a member of the Canadiens' "Black Aces" at the time, filling in at practice when No. 1 goalie Carey Price didn't feel up for a skate.

It would be hard to say Tokarski is simply filling in now.

"I'd think they had a little too much to drink," Tokarski responded when asked what his reaction would have been if someone told him a week ago this would be happening to him now. "But you know, that's what the sport is all about. You never know what can happen, and I'm just taking it all in right now."

With the Canadiens risking a 3-0 deficit in the series with a loss, the Rangers came out flying off the opening faceoff and outshot Montreal 14-4 in the first period.

Were it not for Tokarski, the Canadiens might have dug themselves a hole in those opening 20 minutes that would have been too deep to dig out of, especially considering the goalie playing in the other net, and their season would have been in serious jeopardy.

But every time the Rangers created a chance by smothering the Canadiens with their speed, Tokarski was there.

"That was fun to see," center Daniel Briere said. "That's what we were telling ourselves after the first period, that we needed to get one for him. What he did throughout the game, but especially keeping us in the game in the first period, we owed him one to say the least."

Unlike Game 2 on Monday, a 3-1 Rangers win, Tokarski looked to be comfortable on the grand stage he was thrust upon after Price injured his right knee in Game 1.

While Lundqvist was making it look easy at the other end in Game 2 with 40 saves, Tokarski looked jittery at times, leaving rebounds in dangerous areas and looking behind him on more than one occasion on shots that he had stopped.

He looked exactly like what he was: A 24-year-old rookie making his playoff debut.

But all that was gone Thursday. Tokarski was a rookie no longer. At least he didn't play like one. He looked sure of himself, he challenged shooters, he directed rebounds into corners and he looked to be in complete command of the situation.

"I definitely felt a little more comfortable and in control," Tokarski said. "I controlled more rebounds that game."

By now, everyone knows Tokarski's story, and that's what makes it so compelling. To go from a relative unknown to one of the biggest storylines in the hockey world in the span of a week is a human-interest story that everyone can relate to because everyone at some point or another has wished they could be in Tokarski's position.

Except not everyone could handle it, and that's what appears to make Tokarski unique.

Although he looked overwhelmed on the ice at times in Game 2, afterward Tokarski appeared to take the moment in stride even though he was bitterly disappointed. He calmly analyzed the game and decided that his inability to match Lundqvist's play was what cost the Canadiens the game.

He didn't need to say that Thursday.

"Dustin Tokarski was phenomenal tonight," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "He's a battler, and most important thing, he's a winner. You've got to give a lot of credit to the Rangers. They got out of the gate tonight like we did at the Bell Centre our last game. We weathered the storm, and I felt our team played with more confidence as the game went on. … But without Tokarski's performance, probably the result would have been different."

The Canadiens' entire season would be different, but Tokarski remains calm in the midst of it all.

So calm, in fact, that the gravity of what he is trying to do appears lost on him. When asked what the past few days have been like for him, Tokarski pointed to his larger following on Twitter as one of the main benefits.

While he's counting Twitter followers, the Canadiens are counting their blessings they had Tokarski waiting in the wings when disaster seemingly struck when Price was lost for the series.

"He gave us life," defenseman Mike Weaver said.

And the best part is that Tokarski doesn't even know it.

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