When the final horn sounded and Dustin Tokarski earned his first NHL victory since 2015, the Buffalo Sabres goalie stayed in his crease and pointed his glove to rafters.
Moments later, Tokarski’s excited teammates assembled in front of him, and one by one they each congratulated him, giving him some kind words and a tap on the mask.
“It was pretty incredible, to be honest,” an emotional Tokarski said following Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals, his first NHL victory since Dec. 12, 2015. “I lost my dad a few years back, so that was my first NHL win since he’s passed.”
Tokarski, 31, started to become choked up talking about his late father, Mark, who passed away in 2017.
“So I was just pointing up to him for that special moment,” he said on a Zoom call. “And then all the guys were just awesome coming in, and there’s nothing better for a goalie celebrating with your teammates after a win.”
Tokarski dedicated the win inside Capital One Arena to his father.
“That one’s for him,” he said.
Tokarski’s comeback season stands out as a bright spot in a rough year for the Sabres. Prior to his season debut March 22, he hadn’t played an NHL game since a 10-minute stint with the Anaheim Ducks early in 2016-17. He played last season for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on an AHL contract.
This year, injuries to goalies Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have pressed Tokarski into action.
While he has played well in six of his seven appearances, interim Sabres coach Don Granato said Tokarski has been getting sharper in each outing.
Tokarski saved the best of his 27 stops for Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, poke-checking the puck away as the Russian zoom in.
“He looked more comfortable today, more confident,” Granato said of Tokarski.
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt said Tokarski, a decorated AHL goalie, deserves a special moment like he enjoyed Thursday.
“He’s played so well since he’s been here,” said Mittelstadt, whose short-handed goal in the second period was the winner. I think he fires the guys up, too, on the bench. You can see how hard he’s battling and making big saves. He’s done a great job. …
“It was a super good moment for him tonight and it was nice to be a part of it.”
Tokarski’s splendid performance was just one of several up and down Buffalo’s lineup. When you factor in the quality of the team – the Capitals outscored their opponents 14-2 in their previous two outings – and the fact the Sabres controlled nearly the entire game, Thursday’s victory might’ve been their best this season.
“I would say it’s up there if it’s not,” Granato said. “It felt great from the start to finish. It felt great. We knew coming in they had put up a lot of goals the last couple of games and we knew this team is a great team.”
In his second game with the Sabres, winger Anders Bjork recorded his first goal off a nifty feed from rookie center Dylan Cozens and added an assist.
“It does take some pressure off, for sure, a little bit,” said Bjork, who was acquired Monday from the Boston Bruins. ‘I think it’s going to take a couple games for me to find my stride and figure how I can best play the system and adapt a little bit.”
Wingers Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson also scored for the Sabres, who never trailed. Winger Tage Thompson’s empty-net goal sealed their fifth victory in nine games (5-2-2)
The only downer was the injury Sabres winger Kyle Okposo suffered when teammate Matt Irwin’s shoot-in hit him in the left ear in the first period. Okposo left the ice bleeding and did not return. Granato said Okposo will be evaluated today.
The Sabres beat the Capitals for the second time in eight meetings this season.
After Bjork’s goal 13:23 into the second period put the Sabres up 4-2, the Capitals yanked goalie Vitek Vanecek and replaced him with Craig Anderson.