Boston Bruins’ and Team Chara goaltender Tim Thomas was stingy in the way of answers when NBC’s Pierre McGuire asked him the rationale of his All-Star game winning streak, which extended to four Sunday afternoon in Ottawa.
Thomas may not have a logical answer as to why he backstopped another winning decision, a 12-9 final, in the NHL’s midseason exhibition. But the collaborating factors for this one, in particular, are easy enough to decipher and worth keeping in the collective minds of the Boston faithful.
Being allied with his full-time captain and coaching staff, there is little doubt Thomas was designedly dealt a dare in Sunday’s contest. Although, that is assuming he did not insist on it to begin with.
Recent struggles be darned, he was deliberately withheld until the third period, even though teammate-for-a-day Jimmy Howard was the most efficient closing-frame netminder available.
With a 6-6 tie at hand in the second intermission, the complexion of the game worked in favor of Chara, head coach Claude Julien and Thomas’ implicit plan. From four- or five-plus of laboring at TD Garden with Thomas, the coach and captain know as well as anybody how much pride their blue-collar backstop takes in his triumphant trends.
That was already plain enough for the hockey world to see throughout the first half of the 2011-12 campaign. Thomas may be the oldest and most physically taxed of all returnees from the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup championship squad. But after the team raised the banner and went back to work on short rest, he performed as if he was the least hungover of the bunch.
Beginning with a 4-2 New Year’s Eve loss in Dallas and continuing through his latest regular-season start, Thomas has inevitably issued a reminder that he is, in fact, human. But if there is a second wind to be had, it will be accompanied by a tangible stake and a desire to drown out the doubters yet again.
In that sense, being placed in a position to claim the decision in the All-Star game, and therefore placing his 3-0 record on the line, made good practice for Thomas going forward.
At Sunday’s third-period face-off, the obvious question circulated: Could Thomas outduel his All-Star counterpart—namely the NHL’s statistical goaltending leader in Brian Elliott—and maintain his perfection?
Save for an ill-advised giveaway that amounted to Claude Giroux’s 8-8 equalizer at the 9:40 mark, which would not have happened if he simply summoned a whistle, Thomas was outstandingly sharp by this game’s standards. His latest acrobatic act, falling within his second minute of action, proved one of the reasons the 6-6 knot held up before Phil Kessel put Team Chara back in the lead.
Overall, Thomas answered the big query by never granting Team Alfredsson a lead and ultimately stopping 18 out of 21 shots while his skating mates beat Elliott on six out of 19 tries.
With his performance, Thomas tied the four stoppers from the previous two periods with a 9.00 goals-against average for the day. And he weathered the single-heaviest workload issued to any of the six participating goalies well enough for a game-leading .857 save percentage.
And all in defense of what is ultimately little more than trivia. It would have been easy enough and quite forgivable if Thomas, his captain and his coaches made the shrewd choice of letting Howard monitor the crease in the climactic stanza of Sunday’s game.
Instead, the late-blooming NHL starter who rebounded from hip surgery en route to an ice-shattering 2010-11 season and stifled residual wear-and-tear longer than logically expected prevailed on another intangible boost in willpower.
Imagine, then, what he might have to say when and if anyone asks, “Can Thomas duplicate his Conn Smythe caliber campaign this spring?”
Most likely—not to the same exact extent as 2011—but anything remotely reminiscent ought to still leave enough of an imprint.
For the immediate and indefinite future, it is in the Bruins’ best interest to give the better part of the workload to Tuukka Rask. In recent weeks, Rask has indubitably been the stronger half of the tandem and Thomas’ All-Star performance likely owed, in part, to the fact that he had gone a full week without any game action.
In turn, provided he is fresh-legged and not too rusty by the second week of April, Thomas will be in a position to anchor or co-anchor a return trip to the depths of the postseason.
For the two months until then, the best strategy will be to instill the notion of something to prove for the umpteenth time. It worked in Sunday’s All-Star tilt, when Thomas patiently waited out the back-and-forth of the opening 40 minutes, then embraced the pressure of the third period.
Let that be a teaching microcosm for the Bruins and their handling of their enviable goalies’ guild.