Want to know a secret about hockey? Well here it is: goalies are important. Like, really important. Throughout hockey history, fans have seen goalies single-handedly fuel their teams to victory. For some reason, three Canadiens come immediately to my mind: Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Jaroslav Halak. These three goalies came out of virtually nowhere to lead Montreal deep into the playoffs.
On the other side, teams can have their playoff runs derailed by a goalie playing poorly. This year, the Flyers were able to maintain the nucleus of last year’s Cup run, but they were swept by the Bruins because of poor goaltending. In 2009, the President’s Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks were escorted out of the playoffs by eighth-seeded Anaheim, led by Evgeni Nabokov’s .890 save percentage.
To view the effects that a goalie playing out of his mind has on a team, one must look no further than Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins. To view the effects that a goalie playing well beneath his potential has on a team, Thomas proves to be the perfect example. In the current series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Thomas has been both phenomenal and dismal. He has both carried his team and cost it. He has made highlight reel saves and given up weak goals. Not surprisingly, the Bruins followed suit with Thomas’ performance.
In four games, the Lightning scored five goals (with a few empty netters). In those four games, the Bruins went 1-3, with only a point explosion by Tyler Seguin saving the team in Game 2. These games saw Thomas gave up a few weak goals. In Game 1, the Lightning struck early and were put solidly in the lead with a Brett Clark backhand goal that snuck meekly under the arm of Tim Thomas, a goal that he has the potential to stop. In Game 2, a Tampa Bay rally was started with a slow-moving Vincent Lecavalier slap-shot goal that beat Thomas five-hole while slinking across the ice. In Game 3 a turnover by Thomas behind the net led to a Teddy Purcell goal that contuinued the Lightning rally.
Game 6 was the biggest stage for the Bruins, but Thomas did not get the memo. Many times, he was late coming across the crease to stop one timers, including letting in a Purcell goal that bounced off his blocker and climbed up his arm. The Game 6 game-winning goal was tapped into an open net by Martin St. Louis, a net that was left wide open by Thomas when he charged out rashly at Steve Downie. In each of these games, Thomas’ save percentage was well below .900; the lowest that it went was .808 in Game 6.
Twice, the Lightning players were limited to a goal or less. In these games, Thomas was phenomenal. He pitched a shutout in Game 3, stopping all 31 shots that he faced. In Game 5, he made the best save of the postseason, diving across the crease to smack the puck out of the goal with his stick. Thomas’ save percentages were 1.000 (in the shutout) and .971, much better than the stats that he posted in the other set of games.
Obviously the question is which Tim Thomas will come to tonight’s Game 7. In this series alone, he has shown that he can be phenomenal and disappointing. In Game 7 he will most likely be phenomenal. Tampa Bay will come out swinging, and so will, most likely, the Boston forwards. Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson will face pressure, too. But his team has shown that it can overcome defensive lapses. The Bruins have not. They have said many times this season that they prefer a grinding, defensive style of hockey. The 2-0 Boston win in Game 3 was described by many players as “Bruins’ Hockey.” This style of hockey is extremely reliant upon the goalie for leading the defensive stand. However, regardless of the style of tonight’s game, if Boston wants to win the game, and the series, the better version of Tim Thomas will have to come to play.