At first glance the Montreal Canadiens would seem to be in a bit of a tough spot right now.
Not only do they need to win four of the next five games against the New York Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993, they need to do it without their starting goaltender -- and one of their best players -- in Carey Price. For a team that has at times leaned on its goaltender this season more than almost any other playoff contender (and that definitely includes the three other teams that are still playing in the conference finals) this would seem to be a huge problem.
For now, coach Michel Therrien is going with the relatively unproven Dustin Tokarski, having given him the start in a Game 2 loss and going back to him for Game 3 Thursday night in New York.
In his first start, Tokarski played well even though he gave up three goals in the loss. He was victimized by a bad bounce on a Ryan McDonagh shot after it deflected off of his teammate in front of the net -- nothing you can do about that -- and he was completely screened on another shot that left him little chance of stopping it. The only goal he probably should have stopped was Rick Nash's goal on an odd-man rush that seemed to go right through Tokarski.
The good news for the Canadiens is that goalies can be complete wildcards in small doses, and any goalie has the chance to put together a great game, or even a stretch of great games, at any time.
And the Canadiens might not even be looking for that much. All they should be looking for here is Tokarski giving them a chance in (hopefully for them) five more games. Even though Tokarski is an obvious downgrade from Price in terms of talent, pedigree and even overall track record, they just need to avoid a complete meltdown in net.
Let's try to look at this from a numbers standpoint and assume, just for argument's sake, that the Canadiens are able to push the series to a Game 7.
Montreal is giving up a little over 30 shots per game this postseason, and if the Habs maintain that average for the remainder of this series, that would come out to around 152 shots for their goalies to face over a five-game stretch.
- If they received the .927 (regular season) or .920 (playoffs) performances Carey Price gave them this year the Canadiens would be expected to give up 12 or 13 goals on that number of shots.
- If Tokarski were to come in and give them a save percentage in the same neighborhood of what he's done in the American Hockey League over the past few years (.910), the Canadiens would be expected to give up 14 goals. Even if you assumed a disaster scenario and Tokarski gave them the .900 save percentage he gave them in Game 2 it would be 15 goals.
In the short term, that doesn't seem to be a huge difference.
Eastern Conference Final
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Eastern Conference Final
Don't get me wrong. It could definitely be the difference between losing a single game and winning a single game, but it's not like they still wouldn't have a fighting chance. The weird thing about this situation is that even though goaltending can make an enormous impact on the outcome of a playoff series and determine how far a team advances, it would be more damaging to a team like the Canadiens if they lost Price for most of the regular season than it would be for four or five playoff games, simply because it's such a small stretch of games.
The randomness of a short series might actually play to their advantage here. And when you're dealing with goaltenders in four- or five-game stretches, all hell tends to break loose.
Bad goalies can get hot. Great goalies can be terrible. You only have to go back to the 2010 playoffs when Michael Leighton put three shutouts on the board in the Eastern Conference Final (and a .916 save percentage in the playoffs) to get the Flyers into the Stanley Cup Final. Leighton is now in the KHL. Crazy things happen with goalies.
In the end, the bigger issue for the Canadiens in this series might not be what happens in their crease with Tokarski or, if it comes to it, Peter Budaj, but what's going on at the other end of the ice.
Can they beat Henrik Lundqvist 14 or 15 times over the next five games? That will likely decide the series -- not the play of the Canadiens' own goaltenders.