Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2011

Thomas Nets A Hat Trick With Smythe, Vezina, And The Cup

The NHL’s annual post-season awards celebration was held in Las Vegas Wednesday night, and perhaps the least surprising announcement was that Boston Bruins’ goaltender Tim Thomas was this year’s winner of the Vezina Trophy, given annually to the league’s top netminder. For Thomas, who beat out Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, it was the second Vezina in three years. But there can be little doubt that this one was especially sweet.

One year ago Thomas was riding the bench as the Bruins exited the Stanley Cup playoffs in humiliating fashion, losing a second-round series to Philadelphia in seven games, after racing out to a three games to none lead. Hampered by a hip injury, Thomas had been increasingly ineffective through the final third of the regular season, eventually losing his starting job to Tuukka Rask. The Michigan native was 36 years old and hearing whispers that he might be washed up.

But if Tim Thomas has done anything with great regularity in his professional career it has been to defy the odds. In four years at the University of Vermont he set school records for goals against average and career saves, and he led the NCAA in saves percentage as a junior. But despite those accomplishments Thomas was largely ignored by NHL franchises. While still in college Quebec made him the 217th player chosen in the 1994 entry draft.

With little interest from the NHL, Thomas eventually made his way to Europe after his college days, where he became a star, first in Finland and later in Sweden. Still he dreamed of skating onto an NHL rink, but as the years passed the chances of that dream coming true increasingly remote. A contract with Edmonton in 1998 led only to time in the minors, and his first contract with Boston four years later earned him all of four games in the NHL. By 2005 Thomas was 31, but still as determined as ever. When both of Boston’s goalies went down with injuries, he finally got the chance to live his long-deferred dream.

Anyone familiar with that record of determination would not be surprised that after last year’s playoffs, Thomas underwent hip surgery and then embarked on a brutal rehab program that included three workouts a day through the summer. As the Bruins opened their 2010-2011 campaign, the veteran won back his number one spot on the depth chart, and then embarked on a renaissance season. He broke Dominek Hasek’s record for saves percentage with a .938 mark. He led the league in goals against average at 2.00 and his nine shutouts were the second most in the NHL.

But for all of his regular season accomplishments, Tim Thomas saved his best for when it mattered most. While they won their Division and finished third in the Eastern Conference, few observers much beyond Causeway Street and the TD Garden viewed the Bruins as serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. When they lost the first two games of their opening round series at home to Montreal, the doubters looked prescient. But like Thomas throughout his career, this year’s Bruins squad has made something of a practice of confounding the skeptics. They flew north to the decidedly unfriendly confines of the Bell Centre and evened the series. As befits two Original Six rivals, the Bruins and Canadiens went a full seven games, and game seven went more than five minutes into overtime. In the end, Nathan Horton scored in that extra period on his only shot of the game, and the Bruins advanced.

That was but the first of a record three seven-game series that Boston won on the way to the Stanley Cup. After sweeping Philadelphia in the second round, the Bruins went the limit against Tampa Bay in the Conference Finals and then against heavily favored Vancouver in the Cup Finals. In both of those series Thomas recorded two shutouts, and in each case one of them was in the decisive game seven.

Against the Canucks he allowed just eight goals, a record for a seven game series. In bringing the Stanley Cup back to Boston for the first time in nearly four decades, he also set records for most saves in the playoffs with 798, and most saves in the Finals with 238. Prior to the final game against Vancouver, there was considerable speculation that even if Boston lost Thomas might well win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the series Most Valuable Player.

Instead the 37-year old stopped all 37 shots Vancouver threw at him as Boston cruised to a 4-0 victory. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that Thomas was indeed the MVP, and at 37 years and 2 months the oldest one ever, he was also a Stanley Cup champion.

While Thomas is doubtless proud of both the Smythe and the Vezina, it is the dream of every kid who ever laced up a pair of Bauer’s and skated out onto a frozen pond or river to one day hold aloft that enduring symbol of hockey achievement. The picture of him holding the Cup high over his head, a huge smile splitting his face, was the cover photo for last week’s Sports Illustrated. The goalie who was never going to make it in the NHL led the team that was never going to make it in the playoffs to hockey’s greatest glory. For Tim Thomas, what a long strange trip it’s been from those days in Finland, when not a single NHL team was even interested in him. But over all the years and amidst all the doubters, he seems like the one guy who always knew where he was going to wind up.

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