Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2010

Healthy Again, Tim Thomas Is Proving Hard To Beat

When the Boston Bruins 2009-10 season came to a disappointing end at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, goalie Tim Thomas was on the bench. Thomas’s season had started with great promise. He was coming off a year in which he won the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the NHL. But the peak of his season came on New Year’s Day, when Thomas backstopped the Bruins to a 2-1 overtime win against those same Flyers in the 2010 NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park. Immediately after the game Thomas was named to the U.S. Olympic team.

But Thomas’s play started downhill after the outdoor game against the Flyers. That decline accelerated when he aggravated a nagging hip injury in the first regular season game after the break for the Olympics. In all Thomas would win just 6 of 18 starts after the New Year’s Day contest; and by the time the playoffs started Tuukka Rask was the Bruins #1 goalie.

Thomas turned 36 just as the playoffs were getting underway, and no one would have blamed the veteran if he had used the injury as a reason to bring his career to a close. But anyone who thought that was likely hasn’t followed that career very closely.

Thomas played his college hockey at the University of Vermont, where he led the Catamounts to the NCAA’s Frozen Four for the first time in school history in 1996. He remains third in the NCAA record books for saves with 3,950, and still holds UVM records for save, wins (81), and games played (140).

But those records didn’t earn Thomas a lot of respect from NHL scouts, so after college he headed to Europe. Over the next five seasons the Michigan native made a name for himself in both Sweden and Finland, while waiting for a chance to break into the NHL.

That initial chance came in the fall of 2002, when Thomas joined the Bruins organization. In October of that year he was called up from Providence and won his very first NHL start, making 31 saves in a 4-3 victory over Edmonton. But Thomas played just four games for Boston in that call-up, and after another season at Providence he returned once more to the top Finnish league.

Finally in 2005, at age 31, Thomas returned to the U.S. Again starting the season in Providence, he finally got the break of his career when both Boston goaltenders Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen went down with injuries. His performance through the rest of the season earned him the annual 7th Player Award in fan voting.

Despite that fan support, Thomas arrived at training camp in each of the next two seasons as the presumed backup goalie, behind first Toivonen in 2006 and then the newly acquired Manny Fernandez in 2007. But both years Thomas skated into the breach as first Toivonen struggled and then Fernandez was injured. Thomas was rewarded with another 7th Player Award in the first year and his first All-Star selection in the second.

It was not until the 2008-2009 season that Thomas was the undisputed starter for Boston. He responded by posting a 36-11-7 record and a sterling goals against average of just 2.10, good enough to earn him the Vezina.

In short, nothing has come easy to Tim Thomas throughout his career; but he always fights back. His response to the literally and figuratively painful 2009-2010 season has been no exception. Unwilling to risk surgery, Thomas underwent a rigorous rehab program on his hip during the offseason. He combined three sets of workouts a day with an extensive yoga program to increase his flexibility. He arrived at training camp yet again as the presumed backup; this time behind Rask, who had established himself last year with 22 wins and a 1.97 GAA. And yet again Thomas’s determined efforts resulted in a change to the Bruins’ depth chart.

So far in the still-young season, Thomas has rolled to a 10-1-1 record, while allowing just 1.49 goals per game. But the really phenomenal statistic is that he has already recorded 4 shutouts. That’s just one less than the most he’s ever had in an entire Bruins’ season. While Thomas is unlikely to threaten the more than eight decades old record of 22 shutouts set by George Hainsworth, he is clearly once again pain free. There is of course a lot of hockey to be played between now and next spring’s playoffs for Lord Stanley’s Cup. But for now, the sight of old Tim Thomas distinctively flailing and flopping around in the crease, almost daring opponents to try to put the puck by him, is giving Boston Bruins fans plenty of reason to cheer.

On another, and sadder note, anyone writing about the NHL this week is obliged to note the passing of Pat Burns.  Over fourteen seasons as head coach of the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and Devils, he was behind the bench for 501 wins.  He is the only three-time winner of the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL Coach of the Year, having won it with each of his first three teams.  He’s also the only man to win the award in his very first year as a head coach, with Montreal in 1989.  Burns didn’t win an Adams Award with the Devils, but he did coach them to the Stanley Cup in 2003.  A year later he was diagnosed with colon cancer.  He survived that only to be diagnosed with liver cancer a year later, which resulted in his retirement.  Last year Burns acknowledged that he had been diagnosed for a third time, with the cancer now in his lungs.  Pat Burns was just 58.

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