By Kirk Luedeke
If there was any concern that Tim Thomas might be a little sluggish out of the gate after his historic 2010-11 campaign, the veteran netminder has put the doubts to bed.
The 37-year-old reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goalie and playoff MVP is 1-1 but has played extremely well in two starts this season. With a GAA of 1.51 and save percentage of .945, he’s picked up where he left off, already compiling an impressive highlights package with some signature stops.
“I’m not thinking of one big save,” Thomas said after the win over Tampa. “I’m thinking of– I have to make some saves– you basically never want to give the other team a sniff.”
Thomas, like every goaltender who has withstood the test of time, has had some games that taught him how difficult facing NHL shooters can be for the man between the pipes. After beating Tampa, he recalled one of the tougher losses he endured, going back to ’08-09.
“We’ve learned our lessons over the years,” said Thomas. “I remember a game (where) we were up by three goals with three minutes left against St. Louis. They tied it up and won in overtime. It happened to us last year a couple of times last year when teams came back on us. You have to play the full 60 minutes.”
In hockey, more than any other sport, it is the goaltender who can truly affect the outcome of a game. Thanks to his focus and preparation, Thomas, along with fellow B’s goalie Tuukka Rask, have both given their team a chance to win all three games this season, even if Boston’s record stands at 1-2.
“You’re just trying to be on your toes so you can react to everything,” Thomas said when queried about a side-to-side stop he made on Steven Stamkos Saturday. “There’s really not too much of the reads. The way they set it up, they’re good. They can set it up with two or three different options.
“You throw the ‘cheats’ out the window– and you can’t really cheat on any one thing. You have to just be ready to move wherever they throw it. I was fortunate to get over on time on that one.”
Thomas may not provide the textbook technical example of the modern butterfly style, but his effectiveness in net stems from his otherworldly mental toughness. Like every NHL champion puckstopper, Thomas has faced the kind of pressure that has seen others wither and wilt, proving his mettle by battling through three seven-game series in 2011 to capture hockey’s ultimate prize.
“I realize the reality is that when we’re getting chances and not scoring, the longer I can keep the other team off the board the more chance it gives us,” he said. “We just need to get that first one and then they start rolling in. But if you get down a couple while you’re waiting for the first one it gets pretty hard.”
“I understand the reality, but I don’t feel the pressure. It’s just not the way I think of things.”
Along those lines, Thomas shrugged off the idea that facing two top teams in the Eastern Conference, both of whom the B’s faced last spring in the playoffs, played a role in how sharp he’s looked early.
“I don’t think that at this time of the year it matters which team it is,” said Thomas. “We need to get on the right track here. We want as a team to have a good start to the season. We lost the first game of the season, but we did our best to have a strong effort tonight and that’s what the guys did.”
In two games, Thomas has proven that he has lost little off his fastball. For the Bruins, they’ll need both he and Rask to continue their high level of play to get them back on top of what is shaping up to be a highly competitive Northeast Division with the new-look Buffalo Sabres making noise.
“We can’t be worried about the other teams (in the division) right now,” said Thomas. “We have to play our game and focus on what we do best and then get there.”
With Thomas in the zone and a roster largely unchanged from last season, Boston will have as good a chance as any team to repeat as league champion for the first time since 1998.