When James Neal inserted a five-on-three conversion and augmented the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lead to 3-0 Sunday afternoon, it was plain that Tim Thomas’ latest start had only 72 seconds to live.
Even when Thomas blinked on a Matt Niskanen bid at the 7:12 mark of the first period, which made him two-for-four in the way of shot blockage, his day reeked of a one-period outing.
As it happened, Boston Bruins’ head coach Claude Julien shrewdly took the lingering notion that emergency acquisition Marty Turco was not ready to step in and left it for the Zamboni to raze and bury in the snow.
Tuukka Rask’s de facto stand-in for the balance of the regular season made his Boston debut at the start of Sunday’s middle frame. Realistically speaking, the best he could do was compress the open, 3-0 wound and hope that it either lessened or at least did not worsen.
Technically, it did not, morphing into a final 5-2 falter at the Consol Energy Center.
The first goal to be scored on Turco’s relief shift occurred at the other end with 1:56 gone in the second period. After he had stepped in to help kill the rest of a carry-over penalty, he watched David Krejci put the Bruins on the board with a breakaway conversion, the first significant even-strength play of the period.
For what it’s worth, Turco repelled 20 out of 22 shots-faced while the contesting clubs played to a virtual 2-2, 40-minute tie. That gave him a day’s goals-against average of 3.00 coupled with a .909 save percentage.
That is hardly a radiant line of data, but still a touch better than the majority of his colleague’s recent performances. And this was done largely without the help of two-way connoisseur Patrice Bergeron and entirely without defenseman Adam McQuaid, who both left the game injured.
Although Turco was six days away from the anniversary of his previous NHL contest with Chicago, it is impossible to keep buying the argument that Thomas is crucial to a Northeast Division crown. With the injury to Rask, whose was already accumulating rust in February while Thomas was not getting sufficient rest, a trade-off may inevitably need to be made.
Still two points ahead and still with two games in hand on the stealthy Ottawa Senators, Boston should focus more on helping Thomas recharge for April than imploring him to carry them through March.
The dark-horse scenario in the coming weeks has Turco thawing out and bolstering some critical winning efforts, which is probably a better bet than Thomas revamping without rest. But right now, a cold Turco is only negligibly different from a shagged-out Thomas, who started five straight games within the last eight days and, on three occasions, conceded a 2-0 deficit before the halfway mark of the first period.
Likewise, it need not matter who the Bruins are confronting, for everyone has something meaningful to play for.
The Penguins are vying to usurp the New York Rangers’ claim to first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. Tuesday’s adversaries from Tampa Bay will doubtlessly defy their rash of injuries until they are eliminated from postseason contention altogether.
Whether it is Thomas or Turco in the blue paint, Boston’s final transcript and stature for the regular season will ultimately depend on how often they match or exceed the opposition’s urgency. It is primarily on the Bruins’ skaters, who are inherently more replaceable than their backstopping backbones, to tack points on the scoreboard and the standings.
If they still fail to avert a possible slip out of second place in the playoff bracket, they can at least bank on a refreshed goaltender and a largely restocked lineup―Rich Peverley and all―for the opening round.
Conversely, even if Ottawa runs out of opportunities and gives the Bruins the division by default, it might be rendered moot if Thomas is still too drained and Rask proves too rusty. Whoever the seventh-seeded team is, they could pull off what last year’s Montreal Canadiens could not by raising the upper hand and keeping it for the balance of the series.
The only surefire way to avert that is to ensure that the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe recipient is a full tank after April 7.
With a flight down to Florida for a pair of away games on deck, the fresh-legged and poised Turco should indubitably get the nod against the Lightning on Tuesday and possibly the Panthers on Thursday. The latter decision might depend on Tuesday’s upshot.
And with a total of 14 regular-season games remaining, all crammed within a 26-day span, Turco and Thomas should indefinitely split the workload by an exact or near 50-50 ratio.
If all goes according to plan, Thomas should be soaking in and storing up a second wind by the first week of April, at which point he and the rest of the Bruins should be prepared to springboard themselves into the playoffs.