TAMPA — Ride the kid. Ride him hard. Ride him as if he were the last horse in the Pony Express.
For now, it should be Dustin Tokarski's net: lock, stock and little red light. If the Lightning — the stubborn, desperate Lightning — still has a chance to get to the postseason, it needs this baby-faced goaltender to lead the way.
So put a saddle on his back, a bit between his teeth and spur him toward the playoffs.
After all, what better chance does the Lightning have?
He is 22, and he has just gotten out of the cab, and the Lightning has lost both of his starts. Given that, it may sound odd for someone to suggest Tokarski should be the team's top goalie. At this point, however, who else are you going to trust?
Why not Tokarski?
Why not now?
After all, this is Dead Team Walking, remember? The Lightning season was transferred to the morgue back in December, and it has taken a series of long shots to get it out and into the playoff race. It has won despite injuries (to Vinny Lecavalier, to Mathieu Garon, to Victor Hedman). It has won despite regulars being bartered away (Pavel Kubina, Dominic Moore, Steve Downie). It has won despite recently being last in the conference and 12 points out of the final playoff spot.
What's another long shot then?
And isn't Tokarski one worth taking?
Look, no one is talking about Tokarski and looking for new words for "terrific." He has lost twice, and yes, he should have stopped the tiebreaking goal Saturday night.
Still, that's how bad the Lightning's goaltending, apart from Garon's recent streak, has been. Around here, a guy can lose and still earn more time. Face it, if the options were decent, Tokarski probably wouldn't have been in goal the last two games. Put it this way. Tokarski has given up six goals in his two starts; Dwayne Roloson has given up 13 in his last two.
Ask yourself this: If the Lightning had to win one game — just one — to get into the playoffs, who would you trust to play in goal: Tokarski or Roloson?
Me? I'd go with Tokarski.
Give the Lightning credit for that much. After Garon was injured last week, it would have been easy to turn back to Roloson again.
Coaches often trust players who have had big moments for them, and Roloson won 10 playoff games for Guy Boucher last season. Some coaches, a lot of coaches, would have given him the first shot at getting hot again and parked the newcomer on the bench. It seemed like the safe choice.
"My job isn't to be safe," Boucher said. "It's to try to win games. Sometimes, you have to make the hard decision. I respect Rollie for everything he's done for us, for what he has been as an athlete, and as a person, and for what he's still doing for our room. It would have been easy to say 'Go ahead, Rollie.' "
Instead, Boucher talked to his coaches, and to Roloson, and went with the kid. He says who plays the rest of the way will still be a game-to-game decision for him.
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But if he is going to pick Tokarski to play in two division games, why go back now?
It is no secret Roloson has had a dreadful year, one of those years when an athlete seems to go from ageless to aged. He is last among NHL goalies who have 20 starts this year, and it isn't close. Roloson has been so bad that the Islanders may owe the Lightning change from its trade of Ty Wishart.
As much as Roloson has struggled, is it reasonable to believe he would suddenly get it all back overnight, that he would simply hit a switch and be the efficient goaltender the Lightning saw a year ago? Now, that's a long shot.
Look, no one is suggesting that Tokarski is the team's goaltender of the future.
Remember, only a few days ago, Tokarski had less NHL playing time than an episode of Bones. He is 22 and looks 18, which is fair because when he was 18, he looked 13. But in the world of sports, too young is still better than too old, and growing is better than fading, and playing well is better than the alternative.
For the Lightning, there is not a great choice here. The odds are against both Roloson and Tokarski, and they are against the Lightning, and they are against the playoffs.
There is nothing new about any of that but the kid in goal.
If I were Boucher, I would keep him there for a while.