Despite battling the odds to even reach the NHL in his 30s, winning a Vezina with a spectacular season at age 35, and putting together another Vezina-worthy season this year at age 37, Tim Thomas has been dogged by many who felt he was incapable of being a playoff-caliber goaltender. After all, Thomas was average at best in playoff losses to Montreal in 2008 and Carolina in 2009.
That has all changed this spring.
After playing extremely well in Games 5-7 against Montreal in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Thomas has stepped up his game even more in the semifinals, stealing Game 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers with a brilliant 52-save effort after a solid performance in Game 1 of the series.
Even more remarkable was that Thomas stopped the last 46 shots the Flyers fired at him after Philly’s James van Riemsdyk scored twice in the opening minutes of the game. As always, Thomas’ saves were not always pretty or conventional, but the bottom line is he was the reason the Bruins took Game 2.
“He was by far the star of the game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “He stood tall, and if it wasn’t for Timmy, we wouldn’t be standing here with a win.”
No one in the Boston locker room would disagree, and not a single one of his teammates is surprised by Thomas’ play. However, before the playoffs even began, and then after the first two games of the quarterfinals against Montreal, there were plenty outside the organization questioning Thomas and his playoff performances. Some even advocated for Tuukka Rask to be in the goal for Game 3 of the series.
Thomas, however, has heard that type of talk throughout his career and it has always inspired him. He played well in Games 3 and 4, leading Boston to a pair of wins in Montreal. He was brilliant the rest of the way, as the Bruins took Game 5, lost Games 6, and won Game 7 in overtime.
Even last off-season, there was talk the Bruins were trying to move Thomas and his $5 million salary. Fortunately for the Bruins and their fans, no deal was made.
“People have always doubted me, going back to college and even before that,” Thomas said in 2008. “I won’t say I haven’t heard it, because I have. I just don’t let it bother me. I use it to help me.”
The way Monday’s game started, there probably were not many thinking Thomas would be the star of the game. Van Riemsdyk scored just 29 seconds into the game and then scored a power play goal at 9:31 to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead.
However, Thomas made a couple big stops before Chris Kelly and Brad Marchand scored goals to tie the game before the end of the first period.
“The game started out and they got a couple of quick goals, and a couple of funny bounces too,’’ said Thomas. “I think [Claude] Giroux was trying to shoot that on the two-on-one that they scored the first goal on. So, as the game went on I was just trying to work hard to build to get myself into the game. By the time the third period rolled around I was starting to feel really good. Fortunately, I was good at the right time because they got some shots and some opportunities and kept me busy for the third period.’’
Busy might be an understatement. Philadelphia dominated the third period, firing 22 shots at Thomas from all angles, including a breakaways top on Philly’s Mr. Playoffs, Danny Briere, and several quality chances from van Riemsdyk, who was all over the ice. Thomas may have gotten a bit of help from luck when the puck slid just past Briere, who would have had an empty net in the closing seconds.
“I saw the rebound go to Danny Briere’s feet and in that 100th of a second I thought it might be over because he’s one of those guys that gets them,’’ said Thomas.
Thomas made 10 more saves in overtime before David Krejci stuck a dagger into the hearts of the Flyers with his game-winning goal.
Now, with the Bruins once again firmly in command of a semifinal series with Philadelphia, Thomas has a chance to do what no Bruins’ goalie has done in a long time: lead the B’s to an Eastern Conference final.
Two weeks ago, there were a lot of people who thought that was not possible. I was one of them. A lot of us are starting to believe.
(Steve Kendall is a freelance writer with 20 years experience covering hockey at all levels. In addition to thehockeywriters.com, he has written for The Boston Herald, The New England Hockey Journal, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)