MONTREAL -- Despite a strong start in Game 2, the Carey Price-less Montreal Canadiens dropped a 3-1 decision to the New York Rangers on Monday night and fell into a 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference finals.
It wasn’t because of their goaltending.
With star backstop Price ruled out for the series earlier Monday because of the lower-body injury he sustained in Saturday’s opener, Habs coach Michel Therrien took the eyebrow-raising decision to bypass regular backup Peter Budaj in favor of 24-year-old Dustin Tokarski, who came into the contest having played all of 10 NHL games since debuting with the Tampa Bay Lightning way back in 2009-10.
And despite allowing three goals on 30 shots, Tokarski played well in his first playoff start -- though it was a loss.
“I thought he played a great game for us,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “There’s nothing he could do on any of those.”
Therrien said he went with Tokarski because of his history of success at lower levels. The native of Watson, Saskatchewan, has won titles in the AHL and in Canada’s major junior circuit, and led Canada to the gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship.
But Budaj’s struggles in Saturday’s 7-2 defeat, during which he surrendered three goals on eight shots in relief of Price, surely factored into the decision, too.
“We did talk to Peter this morning, and he really reacted like a pro,” Therrien said. “He’s a good teammate and he understood the decision when we let him know the reason why. For sure, for him it’s tough.”
As good as Tokarski was in Game 2, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was even better. Rarely has a two goal lead in enemy territory seemed so insurmountable, as evidenced by the fact that Therrien pulled Tokarski for an extra attacker with four minutes still to play. Even with a six-on-four power play advantage, the hosts, who drew first blood on Max Pacioretty's goal in the opening period, couldn’t put another past Lundqvist, who ended up with 40 saves.
“The reason why tonight we lost was Lundqvist was phenomenal,” Therrien said. “He stole the game.”
Still, the coach insisted his team played well. The performance was certainly an improvement on Saturday’s debacle. The Canadiens will now take Tuesday off before traveling to New York for Thursday’s Game 3, but they need to regroup quickly.
“We can’t get discouraged,” defenseman P.K. Subban said. “We had plenty of chances -- sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in. In the past we’ve done those same things and it has gone in for us. If we keep getting those looks, I like our chances of putting the puck in the net.”
If and when they solve Lundqvist, the Habs will have to do a better job of preventing an immediate letdown on the other end. As was the case in the previous contest, the Canadiens gave up a goal shortly after scoring one themselves. The lead Pacioretty gave the Habs on Monday lasted just 17 seconds before former Montreal draft pick Ryan McDonagh -- who has six points in the two games -- responded for the visitors with a quick shot that unluckily glanced off Gorges’ back.
“To win hockey games, first of all you need some breaks,” Therrien said.
You also need good goaltending. With their best player sidelined, the Habs still got that on Monday night, even though it wasn’t quite enough.
-- Therrien wasn’t happy with the phantom tripping call assessed to forward Alex Galchenyuk in the second period with the score still 2-1. Martin St. Louis scored on the ensuing power play, taking the life out of the Bell Centre -- and the fight out of the Habs. “You need breaks, and you need calls,” Therrien said. “Right now we don’t have those breaks, and tonight we didn’t have those calls at the right time. But I like our team effort -- I thought our effort was great tonight.”
-- Although Tokarski wasn’t to blame on any of the Rangers goals, he wanted Rick Nash's first period one-timer back. “I was expecting him to hold onto it a bit more, and he caught me a bit off-guard with the shot,” Tokarski said. “I would have liked to have beat the pass and gotten there on that one.”
-- Therrien didn’t go as far as revealing his Game 3 starter during his postgame news conference, but since he said he was “pleased with our decision,” bank on Tokarski again getting the nod over Budaj at Madison Square Garden. Gorges, for one, sounded like he expects that to be the case.
“We have all the confidence in the world in his ability,” Gorges said of Tokarski. “He should have nothing but confidence after this game and heading to New York.”