Time for Tim Thomas to take over

BOSTON -- It's getting to that point of the regular season when Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien needs to lean on Tim Thomas for the majority of the remaining 27 games.

Boston's bench boss never would come out and say that publicly because he knows the Bruins need both Thomas and Tuukka Rask to be at their best down the stretch to help the team earn a postseason berth.

But while Thomas is having a tremendous season (26-6-6) and is almost a lock for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender, Rask has been unlucky and has struggled to play at his best on a consistent basis when called upon.

That was the case again as the Detroit Red Wings pummeled the Bruins 6-1 on Friday night at TD Garden.

After the Red Wings scored their second goal at the 3:10 mark of the first period, the immediate thought was the night could be over for Rask. Julien decided to stick with his starting netminder, but when the second period ended with Detroit holding a 5-1 lead, the coach made a goalie change.

"We didn't feel he was as sharp as we needed him to be," Julien said. "He still made some good saves, and we did recognize that as well. He just wasn't sharp tonight. After discussing the situation, we felt the right thing to do was give Timmy the third period."

With the game seemingly out of hand after two periods, Rask admitted he knew he was done.

"I'm not going to analyze that. I thought I deserved to get pulled," Rask said. "I didn't play to my level today."

When asked whether his struggles were based on his lack of playing time this season, his answer was quick and simple.

"No," he said.

Thomas said that when the Red Wings grabbed a two-goal lead in the opening minutes of the game, he began to prepare mentally just in case he was asked to go in.

"Experience helps," Thomas said. "I've been around a long time and have come into games, and I've been pulled, too. It's not a big deal."

With the loss, Rask drops to 5-11-1. But Thomas, Julien and the rest of the Bruins are trying to keep Rask's confidence intact.

"He's been the victim of a lot of bad breaks and a lot of curveballs," Thomas said. "He's kept a good attitude and kept positive all the way through. I shouldn't have to say it, but everybody in here knows he's a great goalie. He won the last game he played, and this wasn't a fair picture."

It wasn't all Rask's fault Friday night, but the time has come to lean on Thomas just as Julien did with Rask a year ago.

Looking at the remaining 27 games, there's no reason Thomas shouldn't play at least 23 of those. If that's the case, he would finish with 62 games played, which is not unheard of. In fact, during the 2006-07 season, he played a total of 66 games and posted a 30-29-4 record.

When he won the Vezina Trophy in 2008-09, he registered a 36-11-7 record in 54 games.

Thomas is healthy (knock on wood), and he can handle the workload. He's the type of goaltender who performs better the more he plays, and he's proved that in the past. He'll be prepared no matter how many games he plays the rest of the way.

"You've got to take it as it goes," Thomas said. "Ideally, there's room for two goalies to get some games in here. It wasn't Tuukka's fault tonight. It was a whole team effort there."

Julien has stated time and again that the Bruins don't have a No. 2 goaltender, and that the team needs to rely on both Thomas and Rask.

"We keep saying it over and over, but we need Tuukka to come in and give Timmy some rest," Julien said. "We need Tuukka to play well. We know he can play well. Tonight was a tough night for him. The last time he played, he was very good for us, so he's capable and we'll just chalk it up as a tough night, like the rest of the team in front of him, and move on."

At this time last season, Thomas was struggling when Julien decided to lean on Rask for the remainder of the year. Rask played 18 of the last 24 games of the regular season to backstop the Bruins into the Stanley Cup playoffs and played all 13 postseason games.

The Bruins need to ride Thomas the rest of the way this season.

Boston has three pairs of back-to-back games remaining this season, so there are three games Rask should play. Between March 22 and March 31, the Bruins have six games, so there should be a game or two during that stretch Rask could play, too. Other than that, it should be Thomas.

"I don't know what's going to happen in these next 27 games, whether one guy is going to get really hot or both of them are going to play well," Julien said. "I deal with it day by day because you can't think 27 games ahead or 20 games ahead or 15. You've got to go by the schedule and go by how things are going.

"I would like to give Tuukka some games and give Timmy some rest, and utilize both in a way that it works for our hockey club. I can't tell you right now that I have the blueprint because the blueprint changes every day, and you saw that tonight."

It was another example why Thomas should get the nod the rest of the way.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.