"I was happy to hear the reception from the fans," Thomas said after the Bruins' 4-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators. "It was just good to hear. And I wanted to get them a win real bad. When we got down in the second period, I didn't know if we'd be able to pull it off, but we found a way again."
It was Boston's first game on home ice since the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe winner decided to boycott a visit to the White House last week when the team was honored by President Barack Obama for its 2011 Stanley Cup championship. To address his decision to skip the festivities, Thomas posted a statement on his Facebook page that read in part: "I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People."
His controversial comments drew both criticism and support from fans, so it was interesting to hear the positive reception fans gave him Tuesday night.
He was hoping for that kind of welcome, and he got it.
"I was pretty certain," he said. "But having said that, I didn't take it for granted. I was mentally prepared either way."
Bruins coach Claude Julien addressed the controversy surrounding Thomas the day after the team's visit to the White House, then said he wanted to turn the page and focus on hockey. He was standing on the bench during Tuesday's pregame introductions and heard the loud ovation.
"Everybody was probably waiting to see what the reaction was going to be, so it was pretty clear they still respect him for his hockey skills and they're certainly not holding anything against him for his view on the rest," Julien said.
The Bruins have always done a good job of keeping outside distractions from having a negative effect on the team's on-ice performance, and despite a sloppy effort through two periods Tuesday, in typical Bruins fashion, they played a solid third period against the Senators and skated away with the win.
Excluding his third-period performance in the All-Star Game on Sunday in Ottawa, Tuesday was Thomas' first game since a 6-5 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 22. Fellow Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask played the final game before the break and suffered a 5-3 loss to the Washington Capitals.
During All-Star weekend, Thomas did not have to practice, and he barely participated in the skills competition. In the game, he played only the third period and helped Team Chara to a victory, which was his fourth consecutive win in the All-Star Game. After the fact, Julien had a talk with Thomas about starting Tuesday night against the Senators, a team against which he's had tremendous success (21-8-2 with a 1.95 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage with six shutouts in 31 career games), and Boston's goalie was eager to get back at it.
"There was no issue putting him in the net tonight," Julien said.
Thomas said he assumed Julien's decision was also based on the fact that the netminder would be sharp because he had at least played during the break. Thomas finished with 30 saves and said he felt good physically.
"It wasn't that bad, and the All-Star Game helped," Thomas said of his first full game in more than a week. "Tuukka had the whole break off, and I at least played in the All-Star Game and I was closer to game-ready than him, I would say. It wasn't an issue getting back in the rhythm of the game."
After Tuesday, there are 34 games remaining in the regular season and the Bruins rank second in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the New York Rangers. The stretch run will be a crucial one for the Bruins, and as they did a season ago, they will need both Thomas and Rask to be at their best.
Following the All-Star break last season, Thomas played a total of 21 games and posted a 12-9-0 record, while Rask played 12 games with a 7-5-0 mark.
Julien said the plan is to continue to utilize both of them effectively for the remainder of this season, too.
"Their play will certainly influence our decision as how much one plays versus the other, and so on and so forth," the coach said. "We're in a good position where we've got two good goaltenders and we've got to keep going with the hot hand. And when I say the hot hand, if they're both hot, they're both playing. If one's hotter than the other, then the other one plays a little bit more than the other. But no matter what, with that schedule [in February and March], you're going to see both of them playing."
If you want to talk about consistency between the pipes, the Bruins are the only team in the NHL to have used only two goaltenders since the start of the 2009-10 season. Boston has played a total of 213 regular-season games with either Thomas or Rask in net. The last game someone other than those two played was Manny Fernandez on April 11, 2009, at Buffalo.
There's no denying that the play of both Thomas and Rask all last season was a major contributor to the organization's first Cup title in 39 years. This goaltending tandem is showing similar, if not better, signs of that once again this season.
And regardless of what Thomas says or believes politically, as long as he stops the puck, his teammates and the fans will be thankful for that.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.