Tokarski gives Habs reason to believe

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NEW YORK -- Imagine Dustin Tokarski's reaction had someone suggested to him seven days ago that he'd be leading the Montreal Canadiens to an overtime playoff victory at Madison Square Garden in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

"I'd think they had a little too much to drink," the humble kid from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, said with a laugh. "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."

Channeling his inner-Steve Penney circa 1984, Tokarski inserted his name into NHL playoff lore Thursday night, stopping 35 of 37 shots with Montreal's season, for all intents and purposes, on the line as the Habs prevailed in a thrilling 3-2 OT affair, cutting the  New York Rangers' series lead to 2-1.

"Dustin Tokarski was phenomenal tonight," said Habs head coach Michel Therrien. "He's a battler, and most important thing, he's a winner."

With each impressive save Thursday night, Tokarski gave his teammates more and more reason to believe they can still win without injured star goalie Carey Price.

These are the games you remember for a long time.

"That was fun to see," veteran Habs forward 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."

Playing with the poise of a veteran, the 24-year-old Tokarski stood on his head in the opening period, stopping 13 of 14 shots and allowing the Canadiens to catch their breath.

"If it wasn't for him, it could have easily been three, four, five-nothing," added Briere.

Instead, Tokarski kept the Habs in there long enough for  Andrei Markov to tie the game at one, 3:20 into the second period, a goal that had a soothing effect on the outplayed Canadiens.

It remained a 1-1 game until Mr. Playoffs himself, Briere, put Montreal ahead after banking a shot off Rangers blueliner Ryan McDonagh with 3:02 left in the third period.

The Rangers then pressured like crazy, Tokarski making a heart-stopping glove save on Martin St. Louis from in-close.

The kid was going to steal this one, he was really going to do it.

But the script had another twist left, Chris Kreider getting credit for a goal that bounced off Montreal defenseman Alexei Emelin and in with just 29 seconds left.

Madison Square Garden was rocking, and suddenly the underdog storyline of Tokarski was in jeopardy.

Thing is, the Canadiens went back to their room and kept the vibe positive, feeling like this was still their game to win.

"Guys were just upbeat, talking, just saying, 'keep going, any shot can win it, they got a weird bounce and no reason we can't either,'" said Tokarski.

Talk about prophetic. Tomas Plekanec's shot 1:12 into overtime bounced off Henrik Lundqvist and then Alex Galchenyuk for the winner.

"It wasn't pretty, but we found a way tonight," said Briere.

That Kreider goal could have spelled doom for the Canadiens, but they showed an awful amount of character in bouncing back from it.

"It's been the same thing for us all year," said Briere. "We never give up, we've always found a way to come back even when everyone thought we were dead. When they score a goal like that, the majority of people thought that was the end for us. We find a way, a way to go make big plays. We believed. It's obviously easier to say than to do it, but this time we were able to do it."

It was Briere during the intermission before overtime that cracked up the room.

"I just asked the guys to end it quickly, to be ready right off the bat. It's nice that they listened to me," chuckled Briere. "I didn't even have the chance to take one shift in OT."

The Habs are back in this series because of a goalie most players on this team honestly didn't know just a few months ago before he was recalled in March to beat Anaheim and Buffalo.

"Before March? Not much," captain Brian Gionta said when asked what he knew about Tokarski before now. "When Michel [Therrien] went with him in a couple of those games then we found out more what the kid was about, the poise that he showed and handling a tough situation. And again, coming in last game, that's a real tough situation to be in for a young kid in Montreal. He's handled himself really well."

It's just uncanny how cool and calm Tokarski looks in net. He certainly left an impression on the Habs head coach back in March and the seed was planted should Price ever get hurt again.

And let's give Therrien major credit here. It takes major gumption to take a kid who had 10 previous NHL games under his belt in his entire career and insert him in the Eastern Conference finals.

But in consultation with the rest of his coaching staff and management, Therrien said he got full support in making the move ahead of Game 2.

"We all saw the same thing the same way, with the kid's background," said Therrien. "The way that he played for us this year only a few times, we knew the kid was a winner. To be a winner, you need to be a battler, and this is exactly what again he shows tonight."

Tokarski's big-game résumé in the Memorial Cup, world junior championships and AHL playoffs paints a picture of a guy who's hungry for the spotlight, one who doesn't shrivel when the pressure rises.

"Any time you get an opportunity you want to seize it and do your best," said Tokarski. "The one thing on my mind is this series and trying to win a best-of-seven right now."

Suddenly, that doesn't sound so darn crazy.

Buckle up, we've got ourselves a series now.

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