When the Boston Bruins home crowd and Tim Thomas both stand inside the TD Garden walls this Thursday, they will rerun a motif that has all but defined the New England sports scene in this young century. Although the grizzled goalie is presently on injured reserve, George Richards of the Miami Herald reported Monday that he will at least accompany his fellow Florida Panthers.
Active or not, Thomas need only be present to kindle a key chapter in his post-Boston storyline, one that has logged several episodes of its kind with other sports figures.
All of those athletes keyed a run to a long-awaited title for the Boston franchise in their respective sport, then left and returned as a visitor within two years or less. Thomas, a Conn Smythe-winning backstop in 2011, shall put the final stamp on his membership in that club with Thursday's visit.
As it was with all of the previous heroes-turned-adversaries, with the possible exception of Martinez, the nature of Thomas' exit leaves him open to a rancid reception. He opted to forego the final year of his contract in 2012-13, prompting the Bruins to trade him to the New York Islanders in a deal that mostly served as a salary cap benefit for both clubs.
Precisely nine months after that February swap, Thomas shall venture back into the TD Garden with Panthers, who signed him out of training camp. A little more than twice as much time has passed since he played his final game with Boston, the night he surrendered a sudden-death goal in Game 7 of the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
That ought to be enough time for enough of the residual grime to wash off and lend abundant visibility back to the plus points of Thomas' legacy. Maybe not all of it, but enough of it should have gone the way of the ice resurfacer's snow pile by now.
Just for a formal review, those pluses are plentiful. They start on the surface with the otherworldly save percentages (.933 and .938) and goals-against averages (2.10 and 2.00) en route to the Vezina Trophy in the 2008-09 and 2010-11 regular seasons.
Deeper than that, there was the intermittent fall and rise back from a hip ailment in 2009-10.
Then there was the comeback's exclamation point in the 2011 playoffs. Thomas' 2011 tournament log featured a 52-save, double-overtime dolphin show as well as four shutouts, including two in Game 7 and two in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The last of those stingy performances brought to fruition a potentiality that Thomas had substantially preserved: Boston’s first professional hockey playoff title in 39 years. In a way, the long-suffering, finally fulfilled netminder was a primal personification of the franchise's course of fortune circa 2009-2011.
Thomas had a foundation that hit a standstill with his injury, which kept him out of action for the 2010 playoffs and kept him from building upon the previous year. The Bruins had a foundation that hit a standstill with the end of that 2010 postseason, namely a fall-from-ahead, 4-3 falter in Game 7 of the second round and in the whole enveloping series versus Philadelphia.
When Thomas regained his health, starting job and celestial posture, he and the Bruins bounced back together and rinsed out their collective vinegar with Lord Stanley's finest champagne a year later.
Yes, that development played a secondary role in unveiling an arguably less savory side of Thomas. As Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe reported in a Jan. 25, 2012 feature, in the wake of the White House controversy, "Two team sources...both said Thomas's actions merely revealed what his teammates have known since 2006-07, his first full season with the Bruins: that he is a solitary, me-against-the-world figure who often puts himself in front of the team."
One could argue that those character traits, once public, hastened the Bruins-Thomas breakup. After all, his active tenure with the franchise only lasted three additional months after the incident.
Nevertheless, when they were still unknown to the press and the public, those traits did not seem to get in the way of the club's cause. If they held any sway on the outcome of countless key regular-season games and triumphant playoff moments, they fueled the unique goaltender to his critically stellar results.
So what cause, at this point, do Bruins buffs have to dwell on the last-minute limburger Thomas tossed onto an otherwise mind-blowingly delectable delicacy? If need be, a combination of time and Tuukka Rask can shovel the better part of the unpleasantness aside for New England puckheads.
Rask may have yet to backstop a duplicate 16-win playoff result, but Thomas is the reason why he is under pressure to do so. For the foreseeable future, Thomas and the 2010-11 Bruins will be all or part of the standard that subsequent stoppers and skating mates aspire to.
For that reason, even those fans who cannot look past the perceived blemishes on Thomas' transcript need not boo him for coming in to either duel with or root against Rask. (Or Chad Johnson or even Niklas Svedberg, if he perchance comes up and starts for Boston.)
One could argue that the long-term goaltending depth from during and after Rask’s backup days might have also played a role in Thomas’ desire to bolt the Bruins. If that is the case, it does not diminish the awkwardness of refusing to report in accordance with the contract he had entering 2012-13.
Again, though, his replacement starter and the gradually developing prospects in Providence (Svedberg and Malcolm Subban) have his legacy to factor in to their motivation. Those goaltenders are therefore indebted to Thomas and so are their rabid rooters, who should behave as such on Thursday.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com.