The rationale for making what would seem an irrational move, starting a kid goalie with almost no NHL experience instead of a seasoned backup, was a simple one for Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. Every time he was asked about Dustin Tokarski, the coach said, "He's a winner."
And Thursday night, so he was.
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Tokarski, 24, achieved the biggest victory of his life, keeping his team in the game against the Rangers, withstanding a couple of bad bounces and staying strong enough to skate up the ice and join the pile after his team celebrated a sudden and unlikely 3-2 overtime triumph at Madison Square Garden. It cut the Canadiens' deficit in the Eastern Conference finals to 2-1.
"It's hard to describe what I felt there," he said outside the locker room, handling the news conference with the same poise he showed in the crease.
He was asked how he and his team kept their composure after the Rangers tied the score with 28.1 seconds to go in regulation on a fluky play in which the puck bounced off teammate Alexei Emelin's skate. The rookie goalie said, "You don't have a choice. Everything is on the line. You've just got to go out there and keep playing your game."
The same can be said for Montreal's overall situation in this series. It had seemed hopeless, what with starting goalie and acknowledged No. 1 player Carey Price out for the duration and the Canadiens having lost the first two games at home. Smart money would have been on a Rangers sweep. And nothing that happened in the first period changed that feeling, with the Rangers up 1-0 and in control. But Tokarski kept things on an even keel -- as well as veteran Peter Budaj could have done.
"He did everything we asked of him," defenseman P.K. Subban said. "We're confident in both he and Peter to do the job. We're obviously happy for him. I think the way he performed today, he can only get better and he is going to get better. It's a big win for him, it's a big win for us."
Brian Gionta suggested that he and the rest of the Canadiens had stolen one, and the goalie was the reason. "He played well for us a couple games in the regular season, and it's been no different here,'' Gionta said. "He's got great composure for a young guy. It's a tough situation to step into and he has handled it extremely well. He's a quiet kid. You see him preparing for each game, that's the professionalism of a young guy. He's just focused and ready for the games."
The Rangers' Brad Richards said, "I thought he played very well. We thought he was a good goalie. He doesn't have the experience Carey Price has, but they are putting him in there for a reason, and he played a really good game tonight."
Tokarski does have a solid clutch track record in junior hockey and in the minors, which he said helped him. "There's always nerves, but like I said before, it's good nerves,'' he said. "If you've been in them before, it eases them a little bit."
At least for another couple of days, he has the Canadiens thinking and believing differently. He has them feeling that their goalie is a winner.