NEW YORK — This was about Daniel Briere, an aging fourth-liner who claimed one more playoff memory. This was about Alex Galchenyuk, an up-and-coming star who served as overtime hero. And this was really about Dustin Tokarski, a young man thrown into the fire who performed like he didn’t feel the heat.
These are the Montreal Canadiens and they still have life.
It was Briere who stood up in the visiting dressing room at Madison Square Garden late Thursday night and told his team to push for an early overtime winner. The New York Rangers would come out with a strong charge, he figured, and the best response was to counter-punch.
How did that work out?
“I didn’t even get my shift in,” said Briere.
That’s because Galchenyuk froze the clock at 1:12 with an overtime winner that was all about being in the right place at the right time. He charged hard to the edge of the crease just as Henrik Lundqvist stopped a Tomas Plekanec shot — only to see the puck hit him in the chest and cross the goal-line.
“To be honest I had no idea what happened,” said Galchenyuk. “I was going to the net, I think he put it on net, it bounced off my stick or something. It hit me and it went in. The celebration started from there.”
Game over. Series on.
Montreal desperately needed a victory after falling into a 2-0 hole and having to turn the keys over to Tokarski following a knee injury to Carey Price. You don’t get much more desperate than that. Yet, when the puck was dropped on Game 3 it was all Rangers … and there was reason to wonder if the clock was about to strike midnight on this playoff run.
Tokarski wouldn’t have it.
Making just his 12th career NHL appearance, he looked like he belonged. There was a calmness to his play that was only interrupted by the occasional desperation lunge, two of which saw him rob Martin St. Louis from the edge of the crease. It was fun to watch.
To speak with the 24-year-old farmboy from just outside Watson, Sask., you’d think this was just any old hockey game. However, once the battery of cameras cleared he did confess that he could never have imagined a scenario like this one just eight days ago when he was still part of Montreal’s “Black Aces” and watched the team eliminate the Boston Bruins as a spectator.
“I’d think they had a little too much to drink,” Tokarski said when asked how he’d react if someone told him he was about to become a playoff folk hero in New York. “But you know, that’s what the sport is all about. You never what can happen and I’m just taking it all in right now.”
What a fitting mantra for this particular group — one that keeps finding a way to extend the schedule.
The odds are still undoubtedly stacked against the Canadiens, who need to beat Lundqvist three of the next four games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. They certainly played with fire on Thursday after suffering through a dreadful opening period and allowing the Rangers to tie the game with 29 seconds to play in regulation.
However, in the final analysis, all that really mattered is that they found a way to get the job done.
“I think the fun thing about our team is that every night it seems like it’s a new hero,” said defenceman P.K. Subban. “I think sometimes people forget about the depth that we have.”
Briere played a role in that by scoring what looked to be his 14th career playoff game-winner at 16:58 of the third period. He’s nothing more than a depth player on this team, but continues to chip in at important moments. The 36-year-old threw the puck to the net and saw it go in off Ryan McDonagh’s skate.
It can be a cruel game. Just ask Tokarski.
He made five saves during a frantic late push with Lundqvist on the bench before Chris Kreider tipped a shot that hit Alexei Emelin’s skate and tied it 2-2. That seemingly gave New York all of the momentum heading to overtime.
“You’ve got to pull yourself together, go in the room and stay composed,” said Tokarski.
They were able to do so thanks to some steadying words from Briere. Among those also trying to help Tokarski is Price, who accompanied the Canadiens on this road trip and was seen walking out of MSG with a brace over his right knee on Thursday night. He’s taken it upon himself to help mentor his counterpart.
The fact that Thursday’s overtime winner came from the Galchenyuk-Plekanec-Brian Gionta line was only fitting. They were united by coach Michel Therrien before the game and were the latest grouping to make good on his lineup shuffling instincts. At 20, Galchenyuk also became the youngest player in franchise history to score an overtime winner — and his timing couldn’t have been any better.
“We’ve never given up even when everybody gave us up for dead,” said Briere. “When that (Kreider) goal goes in, I’m sure a majority of people think that’s the end for us, but we found a way, we usually seem to find ways to make a big play. We believed, which is easier to say than actually do, but this time we did it.”
They sure are enjoying the ride.