Thursday, October 21, 2010
Bruins' Tim Thomas back in the zone
By Joe McDonald ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- It's only October, so the last thing Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien wants to talk about is a so-called goaltender controversy.
As far as Boston's bench boss is concerned, there's no such thing. Even the team's two netminders don't feel there's an issue. If anything, having two No. 1 goaltenders will be a blessing for the Bruins.
Tim Thomas' 38 saves led the Bruins in a near shutout of the Capitals on Thursday night.
At this point, it's Tim Thomas who is stealing the show between the pipes. The 36-year-old is 4-0-0 this season after turning in another stellar performance on Thursday to help the Bruins to a 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in their home opener at TD Garden. He made 38 saves and came agonizingly close to his second shutout of the season.
Even though Thomas admitted after the game that he was told Wednesday night he would be starting, Julien and fellow goaltender Tuukka Rask pulled a bit of tomfoolery after the team's morning skate on Thursday. The rule of thumb is the first goalie off the ice is that night's starter. Well, Thomas and Rask exited the ice at the same time and then Rask talked about what it would be like to start the home opener.
But when the Bruins came out for pregame warm-ups, it was Thomas leading the way.
If, for some reason, Julien had decided to go with Rask despite Thomas' winning ways of late, it wouldn't have mattered to either one of them.
"I understand. Me and Tuukka are a tandem," Thomas said. "There's room for us to both play, and there's room for both of us to get the games. There will be times when you win and don't play the next game. Last year, overall, Tuukka played better at home than I did. So, I wouldn't have been surprised either way. The coach showed confidence in me to give me the home opener and I wanted to reward not only him, but the home crowd."
Thomas has been around long enough to know he shouldn't worry about things such as playing in the home opener. He said he didn't put too much thought into it, but admitted he did want to have a good game to help get the 17,565 fans in attendance behind him and behind the Bruins.
"Obviously, I couldn't be happier with the way I'm feeling at this point," he said. "Now I've just got to keep working hard, keep working in practice. There are ways I can make it easier on myself, and that'll be my goal in practice."
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In the past, Thomas was always the type of professional athlete who wanted to prove everyone wrong. He wanted to show the naysayers that he could play in the NHL. He wanted to be successful, too. Thomas has gone above and beyond everyone's expectations -- except his own.
He believes he can get better, and now, he wants only to prove to himself he can reach his potential this season.
It's all about confidence. If Thomas is playing with that goaltender's self-assurance, his teammates will play better in front of him. There's no question that has been the case so far this season.
"When a goaltender is in the zone, you want to ride him," Julien said. "The way [Thomas] played in Washington the other night, coming back with him was important because they knew what they were going to face. He didn't give them much in [Washington] and I thought mentally it was giving us an edge to put him back in net tonight. He proved us right. He was outstanding."
Since Thomas is in that zone Julien spoke about and the Bruins are 4-0 with Thomas between the pipes, how long will he continue to start?
When asked if he would continue to ride Thomas, Julien laughed.
"You're trying to find out who I'm putting in next game? We'll see," he said.
Thomas has learned not to expect anything anymore in this game.
"I take it on a day-to-day basis and take it from there," Thomas said. "I'm hoping that this isn't just a hot streak. I'm hoping this is me now."
Thomas had an opportunity to record his second shutout of the season, but he got a little selfish and turned the puck over to the Capitals' Jason Chimera, who scored Washington's only goal at 9:27 of the third period.
"The puck was obviously coming to me, and I saw the Capitals changing and I saw [Blake] Wheeler coming back on the wing," explained Thomas. "Wheels deserves to get a goal here pretty soon, and I wanted to get him the puck. I got hungry for an assist and just got greedy. I should have kept it simple."
Despite that one hiccup, Thomas is clearly dialed in right now. His demeanor on and off the ice is completely different from what it was a season ago.
Thomas struggled coming off his Vezina Trophy-winning season of 2008-09. A lot of it had to do with his ailing hip, which he finally had surgically repaired this past offseason. He admitted after Thursday's victory this is the best he has felt physically since the lockout season.
Nathan Horton scored one of the Bruins' four goals against the Caps in the home-opening win.
That winter, he played in Finland and helped his club to the championship game, and he posted a total of 15 shutouts in the process. Now that he's healthy, he's feeling a lot younger than 36.
"It feels good to feel this fast," he said
The Bruins knew they had to ease Thomas into training camp and the exhibition schedule because they didn't know how his hip would react. Fortunately, he has had no ill effects and it's to a point now where he's not even thinking about it. In fact, he said he started to feel that way while the team was in Europe.
He didn't realize the potential he had for movement until the Bruins arrived in the Czech Republic to open the regular season with a pair of games against the Phoenix Coyotes. After Rask dropped the season opener 5-2, Thomas has won the past four games.
"It's great," said Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron. "I'm not surprised, to be honest with you. We have two great goalies, and it's a good problem to have two No. 1s. It's awesome for Timmy. It's fun to watch."
Bergeron has known Thomas the longest, as far as the current roster is concerned, in contrast to Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who came to Boston at the trade deadline last spring. Rask played the majority of the games down the stretch and all of them during the playoffs, so Seidenberg is now getting a firsthand look at Thomas.
"He was bouncing around in the net and was making all the saves," Seidenberg said. "He made all the saves he had to make. He really played a great game.
"It's great to see. Obviously, he can still do it but he wanted to show everybody he can bounce back, and that just shows what kind of person he is and how motivated he is. He brings that effort every night, and so far he's been great."
It's still October, but it's already easy to see how encouraged the Bruins are about the 2010-11 season. It's obvious on and off the ice. Having solid, and healthy, goaltending for an entire season will go a long way to Boston's ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.
Thomas' performance Thursday was just another positive sign in the early stages of the season.
"What a great job he did," said Julien. "He's been playing well and it's fun. Both [goaltenders] are very supportive of each other. So far we've got a very good situation."
Thomas isn't about to claim the No. 1 job as his. He realizes both he and Rask have to be at the top of their games for the Bruins to have the type of success they're looking for.
"I'm just playing as well as I can when I'm told to play," Thomas said.
If this continues, Thomas will be told to play a lot this season.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.