HAMILTON, ON – Wednesday night was just another day at the office for Dustin Tokarski. The undersized and soft-spoken but fiery tempered and fiercely competitive netminder went about his usual business of making it a personal objective to match his rival save for save. Only on this night, the guy in the other net wasn’t a career minor pro or an unproven up-and-comer. It was Jonas Hiller, he of a league-leading five shutouts thus far this season. Oh and the team in front of Hiller barreling down on Tokarski just happened to be the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks.
One might say it’s the stuff movies are made of. The kid who hasn’t gotten an NHL start in two years. The underappreciated trade acquisition that has had to repeatedly fight tooth and nail for AHL playing time despite repeatedly proving he was simply better than Robert Mayer. The RFA who was only given a one-year contract when his back-up got two seasons, and who sat on the bench watching as Peter Budaj got both halves of Montreal’s post-Olympic break back-to-back. Steps in one Wednesday night, hours after his organization goes out and acquires a more proven NHL netminder in Devan Dubnyk, only to send the ex-Oiler down to Hamilton. And wins. Not only wins, but makes 39 saves, and then still has to outduel Hiller in a shootout. He had earned the opportunity to get the start. And he earned the victory.
Two more important points collected for the Habs while their franchise netminder remains sidelined, thanks in part to a guy who has been the Hamilton Bulldogs’ MVP since he was acquired in a deal for Cedric Desjardins a year ago January. And while the man they call ‘Tick’ was strutting his stuff before a much larger audience, Robert Mayer was holding the fort down on the farm, turning in solid performances in back-to-back wins last weekend to get Bulldog faithful thinking the post-season might be attainable after all.
The path ahead still won’t be easy, however, and gearing up for an always difficult three-games-in-three nights this weekend, the ‘Dogs can count on two key new faces. First, as already mentioned, the Canadiens made a move to bring in Devan Dubnyk for future considerations. Rather than claiming him on the waiver wire, the trade allowed them to immediately send him to the ‘Dogs, and also got Nashville to pick up more of his salary – a portion of which was already being paid by the Edmonton Oilers. Dubnyk, 27, has struggled mightily this season, as a pedestrian .894 save percentage in 32 games with the Oilers ballooned into a .850 in just two games for the Preds, but it remains that he was considered at least a solid back-up for three years prior. He hasn’t played an AHL game since 2009-10, a season where he maintained a .915 save percentage in 33 games for the Springfield Falcons.
Certainly, he’s an upgrade on Mayer, though both goalies will get work until Price is healthy enough to allow Tokarski to take the 401/403 route back to Canada’s Steeltown. Coach Sylvain Lefebvre has already confirmed that it will be the new acquisition getting the start Friday night against Oklahoma City in a pivotal match for Western Conference positioning. Not lost on Dubnyk is the fact that the visiting Barons are the affiliate of his former club – the Oilers – who he will want to prove wrong for giving up on him.
The other addition to the Hamilton line-up didn’t arrive by trade, but is another player who has dressed exclusively in the NHL over the past few seasons – since 2008-09 in his case. It was evident as far back as last summer that the ‘Dogs lacked a veteran presence on the blueline, and with 21 games remaining in their regular season, hopefully it won’t be too little too late as 29-year old Davis Drewiske steps in to fill that role.
As Jarred Tinordi looks to remain in Montreal for the remainder of the season, and Darren Dietz is sidelined once again in what has been an injury-plagued rookie year, the ‘Dogs had resorted to inking ECHLer Jordon Southorn to a tryout for depth on the blueline. The arrival of Drewiske has coincided with the release of Southorn – without having played a game – but more importantly is what it does to the top of the team’s roster on D.
Without Tinordi, the ‘Dogs had reunited Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu, essentially going “all in” on a single standout pairing. Through two games, it had worked almost perfectly, as Pateryn collected a goal and an assist, with eight shots and a +2 rating, while Beaulieu amassed one assist, seven shots, and also a +2. But as three 3-in-3s highlight a surcharged final stretch – that also includes a nine-game road trip – it would be too much to ask the duo to play 25 or more minutes night-in night-out. Drewiske, then, gives the Bulldogs options for a second reliable pair, completing a top four with Morgan Ellis.
Drewiske and Dubnyk will be instrumental if the ‘Dogs are to close the seven point spread that currently separates them from the eighth and final playoff position. While the offense showed signs of life in the last two wins, the team has gotten by by coming out on top of low-scoring tilts for much of the season, and every point is essential here on out with as many as nine teams still in contention for likely just the seventh and eighth spots in the West.
All three games this weekend are at Hamilton’s First Ontario Centre, and thus a great opportunity for the home team to vault themselves ahead in the race. Tickets are still available for the contests via HamiltonBulldogs.com.