Bolts turn to rookie Tokarski in goal amid playoff push
A remarkable posture, really, for someone carrying the weight of the Tampa Bay Lightning's season on his shoulders.
This has been a season like no other for the Lightning, and the catalog of troubles the club has faced has been well documented: A schedule which sent the team on the road for 11 of its first 14 games, injuries to key players and trades which scrambled the personnel and the chemistry.
But each time adversity struck, an opportunity for someone on the roster to step up and fill the void was produced.
And then, with the team just four points out of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, goaltender Mathieu Garon tore a groin muscle in the first few minutes of a March 6 game against the Ottawa Senators. Garon, on a 6-0-1 run at the time of the injury, is out for three weeks.
Now, the 22-year-old Tokarski, called up from Norfolk of the American Hockey League, has been handed the keys to the Lightning kingdom and asked to be the latest to step up his game.
Pressure? What pressure?
This kid knows what pressure is and it doesn't concern him.
"There's always pressure," Tokarski said. "If you don't feel pressure you're not trying to get better and you're not pushing yourself. The playoff race is a fun environment and I want to help this team win."
A fun environment? Each game is do-or-die and he calls it a ‘fun environment."
The Lightning have 14 games remaining, beginning Tuesday night against Boston, and must make up seven points in the standings to catch eighth-place Washington.
When Tokarski led Canada to a fifth consecutive gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in 2009, he faced 40 shots and stopped 39 of them as Canada defeated Sweden 5–1 in the championship game.
The assistant coach with that team was Guy Boucher, now Tokarski's head coach with the Lightning, and Boucher remembers very well what that pressure felt like.
"Pat Quinn, the head coach back then, who had lived pretty much everything in hockey, told me, ‘There's not less pressure in this tournament than in the Olympics,'" Boucher said. "That puts it in perspective. I remember kids in the room, some of them got up to go vomit, they were so nervous. In Canada, you're not allowed to lose. You're just not. It's gold medal and everything else in hockey is worthless. So it's tremendous pressure. So I think he's lived the most pressure he's ever going to live in hockey already and he went through it and won the gold medal."
Surrounded by teammates who are made ill by the pressure of a moment doesn't sound like such a fun environment. Yet, it didn't faze Tokarski.
"There's pressure on everyone in this room," Tokarski said. "We're out of a playoff spot right now and we're fighting to get into the top eight. We're going to keep pushing."
When Garon went down, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman intended to claim Marty Turco, who had to pass through waivers after being signed by the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately, there is a rule that prohibits a player claimed on waivers after the trade deadline is ineligible to play at all for the claiming team during the remainder of the claiming season.
That only left only current backup Dwayne Roloson available to man the Tampa Bay crease. Roloson, who at 42 is the oldest player in the League, has been unreliable and sports an .878 save percentage.
With no other options, the Lightning sent for Tokarski.
"He's a kid who has won everywhere he's been," Boucher said. "Everywhere. Midget, junior, junior with Team Canada, this year the Norfolk Admirals are No. 1 in the AHL and he hadn't lost in 12 games. He's caught up to the pressure and it's fitting he gets this opportunity.
"It's not what we would want because of the injury to Garon, but at the same time for the organization, we were bound to have him up here to give him a chance. He's been wanting this for a long time and he hadn't lost in 12 games, so this was probably the best time we could have put him in. His confidence was at its highest."
So far, Tokarski has made two starts and is still looking for his first win. He is 0-1-1, losing to Carolina on Saturday night and allowing an overtime goal by Alex Ovechkin in his season debut on March 8, a game in which he had to deal with serious cramps caused by dehydration during the third period and the overtime sessions.
As centered as Tokarski may have been, Boucher was taking no chances and set a plan to minimize the rookie's nerves prior to his first start.
"We didn't tell him until lunchtime that he was playing," Boucher said, "so he didn't have to not sleep the night before or start playing the game at 8:30 in the morning in his head. If he had done that, the cramps would have started in the first period.
"It's to protect the individual from over-thinking everything. Minutes and hours matter when you're stressed and in a situation which you haven't managed before, the wait is what hurts you. The long wait, the over-thinking, the energy you waste emotionally and all that. We wanted to be sure that he wasn't exposed to that."
Keeping the young goaltender calm was only partially successful.
"Yeah, I learned I'd be starting at lunch," Tokarski said. "I didn't have as much time as I usually would to prepare. I didn't have much time to get nervous. I just laid down for a nap and then played. Well I was only really able to nap for a bit -- not too much."
That game wasn't Tokarski's NHL debut, however. He was a veteran of 44 minutes of NHL action in 2010, during which he allowed three goals on 16 shots.
Tuesday night, Tokarski will get his third consecutive start against the Bruins, and all indications are that the net is his until further notice.
But time is growing short. If the Lightning have any hope of playing in the postseason, Tokarski will have to carry them there. And he needs to begin immediately.
Still, it is difficult to avoid the sense that somehow Tokarski was expecting this all along. Although he has played for the Norfolk Admirals all season, his mask prominently says "Bolts".
"The last two and a half years every mask I've gotten has had Lightning stuff on it," Tokarski said.