And to think, the P.C. (post-Carey) era started so promisingly.
When it was announced before Monday’s second game of the Eastern Conference final that Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price would not be available because of injury, Montreal became an instant long-shot to make the Stanley Cup final.
So Michel Therrien did what confident gamblers are wont to do – he’s a self-described poker aficionado – he made the aggressive play.
In this case, that meant handing the net to 24-year-old Dustin Tokarski, who had never played an NHL playoff game but enjoyed considerable big-stage success in major junior and in the American Hockey League, where he spent all but a handful of games this season.
But wagering involves risk, and despite dominating for most of the game, Therrien’s bold move couldn’t forestall a second straight loss – with a 3-1 win, the Rangers now have a firm grasp on the series as it heads to Manhattan.
"I thought he played well tonight, he had a good presence out there. You look at his track record, and he's a winner, and that's why we went with him," he said, later adding "I'm happy with our decision."
That Rangers forward Chris Kreider, who was granted most-hated status at the Bell Centre after sliding into Price in the second period of game one and ending his series, again played a central role will be galling to the fans who booed loudly when he was announced in the starting lineup.
"That was fun ... I don't think they're booing you unless you're doing something right," said Kreider.
And let’s not discuss the pivotal role that former Habs draft Ryan McDonagh has had in this series (he was the game’s first star with a goal and an assist), for Montreal fans life without their number one goalie is traumatic enough.
World-class netminders can be handy to have around in the playoffs, as New York’s Henrik Lundqvist demonstrated in making a handful of master-illusionist quality saves – most notably on Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban – among the 40 shots he parried.
He produced a snazzy three-save flurry on an unmolested Rene Bourque in the game’s opening minute; it set the tone, no one can plausibly invoke his inability to play in Montreal any longer, this doesn’t bode well for Canadiens fans.
"He was phenomenal. Phenomenal," said Therrien. "He stole the game, those things happen in the playoffs."
Anyway, to the other end of the ice.
The first puck Tokarski stopped was from former Hab Dominic Moore, whose slapshot at 1:29 came a split-second after a whistle for icing.
One might call that one a practice swing.
The first real shot the 24-year-old faced was a bona fide scoring chance, which merely fell to former NHL scoring champion Martin St. Louis, 15 feet away and unattended.
But Tokarski, who was loudly applauded in the pre-game introductions, stayed with the Team Canada forward and managed to square up to his back-handed shot.
The Habs roared out of the blocks – anger, resentment and humiliation being like rocket fuel to pro hockey players – and simply dominated play from the off, St. Louis’ chance was one of the rare openings for the visitors.
Max Pacioretty duly opened the scoring at 6:14 when a Mats Zuccarello turnover was shoveled toward the net and bounced in off the Montreal winger’s arm.
The Bell Centre stood as one, but before the goal could be announced, the Rangers were back on level terms.
McDonagh – him again – notched his fifth point in four playoff periods against the team that drafted him (and infamously gave him away in exchange for Scott Gomez) when his speculative shot caromed off Josh Gorges, off the post, and past Tokarski.
"It's one of those frustrating goals, really it was a nothing shot. I'm trying to box a guy out, it goes off my ass. (Tokarski) didn't have a chance at that one. What are you going to do? You never want to see those goals go in especially after we just scored . . . those things happen in a game, we have to continue to be resilient," said Gorges.
Lundqvist appeared to be fighting the puck at various stages, he was handcuffed by a one-timer from Pacioretty from the right circle, and had difficulty with a long shot from Nathan Beaulieu, but he was on hand to stone Pacioretty with a right pad save at mid-period with the teams playing four-on-four.
Montreal having dominated the period, it’s of course predictable that the Rangers would exit the frame with a lead – Rick Nash scored his second in as many games at 18:58 on a three-way passing play.
Tokarski got a piece, but not a big enough one; it’s not his fault he isn’t the cat-like Price in terms of lateral movement.
Early in the second, the Habs managed to kill off a lengthy four-on-three penalty, and looked to be calibrating their sights once again – the Rangers having started to assert themselves more forcefully on the fore-check – but the returning Alex Galchenyuk was hit with a marginal tripping call and New York went back to the power-play.
That hasn’t exactly been a blessing in these playoffs, but since racking up a miserable 0-for-32 string, the Rangers have been putting on a clinic.
It’s helped that they’ve had the imposing figure of Kreider. Since Kreider returned from injury six games ago, he has five points – including an assist on Nash’s 2-1 goal.
This time he was solidly parked in front of Tokarski as McDonagh, Derek Stepan and St. Louis played pitch-and-catch; their little game was concluded by St. Louis ripping a top-corner shot from the middle of the slot past a screened Tokarski.
The Saskatchewan native made several top-level saves in the third period, and no serious evaluation can hang the defeat solely or even primarily on his shoulders.
His central failing is that he isn’t Carey Price, and that’s a problem the Habs may not be able to overcome.
With files from Cathal Kelly