- Matt Kalman, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- To hear Bruins goalie Tim Thomas tell it the last several weeks, the media has made him out to be some sort of modern-day Dave Reece, but he hasn't stopped being the same Tim Thomas who won the Vezina Trophy last season and has been a stalwart since emerging on the NHL scene in January 2006.
Whether descriptions of Thomas actually have been that scathing or he just needed to convince himself they were to shake his doldrums, all the words in the world weren't going to change that perception. Only by doing what Thomas did Thursday night at TD Garden -- beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in a shootout -- could Thomas turn those slights around. Now we can laud him as if he's the second coming of Gerry Cheevers at least until he loses again.
Thomas, starting an NHL game for the first time since Feb. 2, earned his first win since a shootout victory at San Jose on Jan. 14 (he was 0-4-2 over that stretch) and ended the Bruins' 10-game home winless stretch (0-7-3).
Thomas hadn't won a home game since the Winter Classic and hadn't prevailed at TD Garden since Dec. 23.
"I didn't become a bad goalie. Like I said before, I don't think I've played that bad this year," Thomas said after the 3-2 victory that lowered his goals-against average to 2.50 and left his save percentage at .915. "Have I played to the level I did last year? No. But the whole year hasn't gone anything like last year.
"It's tough. We have to grind out wins and it's tough to get wins in this league right now, where we're at. You want to be able to take it that one extra step that the team needs. But having said that, it's difficult. This is the NHL; you've got some teams that can score."
There also were teams that could score (and score and score) at the Olympics, where Thomas spent the last two weeks. Although he only spent 11:31 of his time in Vancouver facing opposing scorers, he spent plenty of time staring down his own U.S.-born shooters in practice. In addition to regular practice shots, he figures he faced about 400 breakaways at the end of those sessions.
Thomas is famous for battling in practices as though they're playoff games, but he didn't let the All-Star barrage in Vancouver discourage him.
"Actually I got scored on a lot," he admitted. "But it was great to practice against those guys. You see Patrick Kane and those guys on TV, I took it as an opportunity to make myself better."
Bruins coach Claude Julien didn't see the Team USA practices. However, he was impressed by Thomas' half a period as the American netminder in the semifinal rout of Finland. So when the Bruins returned from the Olympic break, Julien decided he was going to go get Thomas a start early in the schedule. Thomas was slated to face the Leafs even before Tuukka Rask re-aggravated a knee injury and had to sit out.
Julien made sure to pump his netminder's tires before giving him the start, although Thomas didn't seem to need it.
"When I talked to him the other day, I told him, 'You're a Vezina Trophy winner. You don't go from being a great goaltender to a bad goaltender. So the whole organization here, your teammates, your coaching staff, upper management, we all believe in you and you've just got to go out there and have fun playing again and doing the job that you've always done,'" said Julien. "So it was nice to see him respond well."
There was no question in Thomas' mind that he would get a chance to make the start for the Bruins, even though the Toronto game fell on the day after the trade deadline. Thomas has a no-trade clause, so even though his name was bandied about in rumors, as long as general manager Peter Chiarelli hadn't come calling, Thomas thought he was safely ensconced in Boston.
"I was pretty confident that nothing was going to happen," he said.
Against a confident Thomas, the Leafs fired a pedestrian 26 shots on net through regulation and overtime. However, the quality of the scoring attempts was anything but pedestrian and required Thomas to be "outstanding," according to Julien, who typically is more reserved about his goaltenders. There were breakaways by ex-Bruins sniper Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin, at least a few more partial breakaways, and a 2-on-1.
And then there was the shootout, where Thomas had to face Kessel, journeyman Jamie Lundmark and rookie Tyler Bozak. Stopping Toronto's leadoff man, Kessel, a shootout hero in his days in black and gold, set the tone. Thomas denied Kessel's wrist shot with a swipe of the glove.
"I didn't know exactly where he was going to shoot because he can shoot anywhere," said Thomas, noting that Kessel was one of the shooters he faced the most in Team USA practices. "He can shoot a low-blocker, high-glove, 5-hole. I was just trying to do the best I could and I was fortunate enough to be the one that ended up on top today."
Any rust that had settled on Thomas was long gone when he closed up his 5-hole to deny Bozak and preserve Miro Satan's goal as the winner. With his arms raised in celebration, Thomas skated toward the Bruins bench to congratulate his teammates, "Dirty Water" blared from the PA system and it seemed like old times.
"I'm not going to lie, it feels really good right now," he said. "The first win I've had in a long time, the first win we've had at home in a long time, first win we've had at home in a shootout in a long time. So for a number of different reasons, I feel pretty good right now. The whole team feels good. I've said before, you probably feel better about yourself in a shootout [win] than you should, and worse about yourself in a shootout loss."
Tim Thomas proved, for one night, that he is still Tim Thomas.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.