MONTREAL — First, an anecdote about Dustin Tokarski and playing under duress: It was a game day in October 2012 and the goaltender had just been carjacked at knifepoint. He was sitting in a Syracuse Crunch track suit, in a Syracuse police station, just hours before his team was scheduled to play a road game against the Binghamton Senators.
There was a police lineup to identify the perpetrator, some paperwork to complete and even a few autographs to sign for officers. Then, there was a frantic one-hour drive and an arrival at the Broome Veteran County Memorial Arena at roughly the same time the national anthem was being performed.
Under those difficult conditions, Tokarski would obviously not be starting that game for Syracuse.
However, he would be forced to play. The Crunch fell behind 5-0 early in the second period and a line brawl broke out as counterpart Riku Helenius skated down the ice to trade punches with Binghamton’s Robin Lehner. The two starting goalies were ejected.
That left only one man for Syracuse coach Jon Cooper to turn to. And, given the events of the day, there was every reason to believe that the game was about to get even uglier.
Except it didn’t.
“Tokarski comes in and, sure enough, 5-1, 5-2, 5-3, 5-4, 5-5, overtime and we win 6-5,” Cooper, now the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, told Sportsnet recently. “That was one of the biggest comebacks I’ve ever been a part of. That’s just Ticker — he somehow finds a way.”
This was not a story the 24-year-old was willing to discuss publicly in the middle of a playoff series and understandably so. But it does provide a pretty telling snapshot of the man currently tasked with carrying the playoff hopes of the Montreal Canadiens. There simply isn’t much that fazes the Saskatchewan farmboy, including being thrusted unexpectedly into the middle of the Eastern Conference final.
If you’ve been following along during this series with the New York Rangers, you’ve no doubt heard about all of the championships Tokarski has won. However, when you look a little closer at his career path, what stands out most is how he has performed in times of high stress.
There was a 53-save showing in the final of the 2008 Memorial Cup against Kitchener — in Kitchener. There were 39 stops in the gold-medal game at the 2009 world junior championship in front of an expectant Ottawa crowd — after a tough outing in the semifinals. There were the eight-straight wins he backstopped the Norfolk Admirals to at the end of the 2012 Calder Cup playoffs.
And, while we’re at it, why don’t we add his stone-cold victory over New York in Game 3 of this third-round playoff series under the famous roof at Madison Square Garden?
“What he is, is a battler,” said Bill Peters, who coached Tokarski with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. “He’s an overachiever. He’s a guy that’s been given nothing.”
Even his current role with the Canadiens had to be earned the old-fashioned way. As recently as training camp, he wasn’t considered a serious candidate to serve as Carey Price’s backup. Tokarski saw action for just half of one exhibition game in September and was cut with more than a week remaining until the regular season.
Once in Hamilton, he had to battle Robert Mayer for playing time and by now you know how that turned out. Mayer’s contract was terminated last week while Tokarski was rewarded with a new two-year deal just before the playoffs — the second of which guarantees him NHL money — and he would have had plenty of lucrative options in the KHL if that offer hadn’t arrived.
It might be tough to keep him out of the Montreal lineup next year. The decision to turn to Tokarski, rather than Peter Budaj, once Price was injured is a pretty strong statement about how head coach Michel Therrien and goalie coach Stephane Waite feel about the organizational hierarchy.
However, if there’s anything we’ve learned about Tokarski it’s that nothing is likely to come easily. He was cut in midget before eventually leading the Prince Albert Mintos to the Telus Cup. He wasn’t even drafted by a WHL team and had to displace Kevin Armstrong, a much more highly touted prospect, after joining the Chiefs.
The Lightning selected him in the fifth round before trading his rights to Montreal for Cedrick Desjardins in February 2013. He’s still appeared in only 13 NHL games — three of which have come in these playoffs. The one thing scouts have never been able to look past is his modest stature.
“Size is always going to be a question; I think he’s always going to fight that,” said Peters. “It definitely was when he was younger. But all he’s ever done is win. At some point you’ve got to look behind the five-foot-11 and realize that you’ve got a guy in there that’s giving you a chance each and every night.”
The Montreal players certainly feel that way in this series. Tokarski has more than held up his end of the bargain so far, especially given the circumstances, and had the Habs one overtime goal away from tying this series on Monday night.
“I’ve got a gold medal because of him,” said defenceman P.K. Subban, who played with Tokarski on the Canadian world junior team. “He has the ability to say ‘OK, I’m not letting in any more (goals) and you guys can go and play.’ When he’s determined to not let in a goal, he doesn’t let one in.”
Given his history, and the big moment at hand, Tokarski should be extremely determined on Tuesday night. Montreal is back home at the Bell Centre and needs a victory in Game 5 to extend its season.
While very few people are giving them any serious chance of rallying, especially with Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers net, those that have worked with Tokarski in the past have learned to expect the unexpected.
“He competes very hard,” said Peters, now an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. “If you score a goal on him, whether it be in practice or a game, you’ve made a good play or a good shot. He’s not going to give you anything for free. I think that’s how he earns the respect of his teammates.”