2011 Stanley Cup Finals: Tim Thomas's Aggressive Play Costly for Boston Bruins
It's hard to find a more respected goaltender than the Boston Bruins' 37-year-old veteran Tim Thomas.
Believe it or not, going into the 2005-06 season at age 31, Thomas had four career NHL appearances. Even in that season, he was just 12-13-10 and was not able to really stand out in a disfunctional four-goalie rotation for the Bruins.
But since then, the former ninth-round draft pick's achievements have been astounding.
He has taken Boston to four straight playoff appearances, its longest streak since 1993-96. He won a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He went 36-11-7 at age 35, struggled at age 36, and then recovered for another fantastic performance, going 35-11-9, at age 37.
In the most recent of those three seasons, he broke the league record for highest save percentage in a single season—93.8 percent. And, now, Thomas has given the Bruins their first Eastern Conference title and Stanley Cup Finals appearance in over 20 years.
Despite all of those accomplishments, however, it may be the very style that has earned them all of that that will cost Thomas from winning what would be his most treasured accomplishment: the Stanley Cup.
Even with a 94.0 save percentage in the first two games of this year's Cup Finals, one goal surrendered in Game 1 and three goals surrendered in Game 2 by Thomas have been enough to sink Boston twice and dig it a 2-0 hole in the series.
Of the four total goals, one was with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. Another was 11 seconds into overtime. So why is Thomas being beaten at these crucial moments?
To us, the answer is simple; he's just playing too aggressively, too far out of his net, too close to the mass of skating players to be a reliable goalie when the pressure is really on. Indeed, aggressive goaltending is Tim Thomas; he has re-defined and re-popularized the style. Yet, nevertheless, we think he's gone too far with the strategy, as it has become simply too easy to get the puck around him at the most important moments.
Let's go back through the few goals he's given up in Games 1 and 2 and see exactly how Thomas got caught out of the crease, how Vancouver avoided him, and what Thomas can change for the rest of the series to avoid even more untimely series-changing goals.
Game One: Raffi Torres Game Winner
We must first note that this goal, in a large part, is because of a defensive breakdown. After recovering mentally from the chaotic frenzy that is this play, you can rewind the tape and watch Raffi Torres—the eventual goal scorer—quietly weave his way through the Bruins and eventually pass by absolutely everyone as he becomes a lone skater headed towards the goal mouth.
However, Thomas comes out of his crease to cut off the angle of Jannik Hansen, who appears to have a clear gap to fire the puck instead. He doesn't realize that Hansen has only scored on 5.1 percent of his shots (2-for-39) during the playoffs and 8.0 percent of his shots (9-for-113) during the past regular season.
Sticking to his nature, Hansen then simply slides an in-stride, but certainly not powerful pass to Torres for the easy deflection into the open goal, catching Thomas completely off-balance with the sudden change in attack angle.
Had the Bruins' netminder been farther back into his crease, he would've had to make a challenging but certainly not miraculous save on the tip chance by Torres, who wouldn't have had the time or space to actually pull off a true wrist shot if he had needed to. Even with a less aggressive goalie, we don't expect Hansen would've tried the shot, anyhow; after all, the Canucks had already done that 33 times before and had yet to get one past Thomas.
Game Two: Daniel Sedin Ties It
When the puck finds its way back to the point where Vancouver defenseman Alexander Edler waits to fire a slap shot towards the goal, Thomas follows his usual routine in this instance; he skates up, still standing, to the top of the crease. When the shot is fired, he drops down to the typical butterfly stance, but remains on the edge of his blue arc.
With two screens in front—one is Canuck forward Alex Burrows, and the other is his man-to-man defender, Dennis Seidenburg—and Zdeno Chara also headed towards the goal mouth, Thomas needs to recognize the high likelihood for a deflection, perhaps even inadvertent, on this long-distance shot. But he doesn't.
In the end, it's not a tip that sends it past Thomas, but rather, something even worse; a pass. Edler's shot is blocked by the leg of Seidenburg but is corralled by Burrows, who slides it over to Daniel Sedin. Sedin, who had slipped unnoticed from the original scramble in the left side corner (judging from Thomas's point of view) over to the lower slot on the right side, then lofts a chip into the far side of the goal.
With Thomas deeper in the goal crease, he might've sacrificed some of his power to cut off the angle, but, as it turned out, the shot failed to even make it to the goal. Once Daniel received the puck, Thomas may not have had time to launch himself fully square to the shot on the right post, yet he still could've made the save as the quick shot went far side, not near side, on the gaping goal.
Game Two: Alex Burrows in Overtime
And now, the famous goal that has sparked this intense debate of Thomas's use of his aggressive style.
In analysis of this play, we notice something most of us didn't see live; Burrows does fake the shot at first, but he then tries to shoot again once approaching the inner part of the faceoff circle. By then, though, Zdeno Chara has his stick tying up Burrows' and likely looking to take most of the power and accuracy off of any shot he takes.
Though we understand Thomas challenging Burrows when he entered the offensive zone all alone, the arrival of Chara to tie up his man should be the signal for Thomas to slowly drift back into the center of the goal mouth.
Conversely, Thomas continues to stay out of the blue paint and then eventually sprawls to block a centering pass that would've given any Vancouver player an open goal. Yet, there's an issue with the centering pass strategy; the closest teammate for Burrows is directly behind him, not on the right wing, and has only just crossed the blue line.
With Thomas suddenly eliminated from the play by attempting to block a non-existing option from the cruising Canuck forward, Burrows manages to circle the goal and stay a step ahead of Chara before sliding the puck gently into the net. Had Thomas still been in position, though, he easily could've slid his pad across to block the wrap-around try, and then Chara, most likely, could've controlled the rebound.
While only a medium-sized portion of the blame for Torres's and Daniel Sedin's goal can be placed on the shoulders of Thomas, this play, except for the pointless and blatantly stupid turnover by Andrew Ference immediately after the faceoff win in the neutral zone, is all on him.
Could it have been prevented? Yes, it easily could've and should've been, as it was for all three of these game-changing tallies. Can Thomas recover from these two heartbreaking losses and hold strong in the net for the rest of the series? Yes, indeed, if he can simply just adjust his tactics.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 275 articles and received over 285,000 total reads.