Tim Thomas shows Bruins the way

Updated: May 24, 2011, 9:36 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan |

BOSTON -- Sometimes, the numbers do lie. Some nights, when your power play is impotent (again) and your offensive opportunities are fleeting and your opponent is relentlessly bearing down on you, it becomes a game of quality, not quantity.

Sometimes, you just have to find a way.

Perhaps that is what separates this Boston Bruins team from the clubs of the past two decades. They were outshot 14-4 in the first period of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, cringed as one of their critical players (Nathan Horton) committed two undisciplined penalties, fretted when their omnipresent nemesis, Simon Gagne, potted yet another goal less than two minutes into the game.

[+] EnlargeTim Thomas
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesTim Thomas helped send Bruins fans home happy with 33 saves, including a show-stopper in the third period.

Human nature suggests that is when the doubts would start bubbling to the surface of the Garden ice, just two short days after men in black and gold coughed up a 3-0 lead in Game 4. The angst of the faithful hometown crowd was palpable in that first period of Game 5, when the Lightning kept peppering shots at goaltender Tim Thomas.

Yet, strangely, Boston's netminder claimed he actually "relaxed" after the Lightning struck first with Gagne's goal. "I don't know how it works, but it [worked] that way for me," Thomas shrugged.

And so it was Thomas who stepped up in the third period, when the game was hanging in the balance and the puck took one of those unpredictable bounces off the boards and landed squarely on the stick of Lightning winger Steve Downie. The short side of the net had a gaping hole that all but featured a neon sign screaming "Vacancy!"

Downie lifted the puck, but there was Thomas, flailing in his usual unorthodox manner, reaching back with his stick and somehow deflecting the puck away, recording a save for the ages that will be forever replayed in the annals of Bruins highlights.

"That save," declared Patrice Bergeron, "turned the game around."

At the time, the Bruins were nursing a precarious 2-1 lead, relying on superb penalty killing and superb goaltending to keep them afloat.

The goaltender was the same guy who had came under some scrutiny after a couple of soft goals in the previous game, mistakes that actually ignited conversation that the 37-year-old Thomas might have been succumbing to fatigue.

The frustrated Tampa scorers scoffed at that notion, as did their coach, after they left Boston with a 3-1 loss and their season on the brink. When asked to assess the play of his top snipers, Lightning coach Guy Boucher said he felt his scorers were doing well enough, adding, "They're no different than the other guys. We're still trying to figure out the Thomas enigma."

Thomas described the biggest save of his career thusly: "Just a reaction and a desperation, and I'll admit I got a little lucky there."

Luck is good. It's better than curses and Game 7 losses and too many men on the ice and all the other baggage this team is asked to lug around on occasion.

So now these Boston Bruins are on the cusp of the Stanley Cup finals, one win away from erasing all the doubt and trepidation that has haunted these proud men with the spoked B on their chests.

They will fly to Tampa, where they'll try to close out the Lightning on Wednesday night with a 3-2 series lead and the knowledge they won Game 5 despite not playing their best.

They won despite the startling admission from their coach, Claude Julien, that his team was "tight" in the first period. That can happen when you are trying to protect home-ice advantage and establish the upper hand in a series that has not truly been claimed by either team.

It can happen when historic collapses are still an attachment to your resume, like it or not.

Nathan Horton wasn't here last year. He didn't experience the devastating collapse to the Philadelphia Flyers, but he had his own demons to exorcise on Monday night after sitting in the box for back-to-back interference calls.

After his teammates successfully killed off the second penalty, Horton ambled back on to the ice and positioned himself as David Krejci won the faceoff. Milan Lucic delivered a gorgeous backhand pass to Horton, who one-timed it past the startled Mike Smith. The Bruins had tied the game.

The game-winner came in the waning minutes of the second period with Bergeron delivering an artistic feed to Brad Marchand.

Horton apologized to his coach afterward for "crossing the line" in his attempt to be an aggressive presence.

"I know what the line is," Horton said. "A couple of tough calls, that's just how it goes. I definitely don't want to cost my team. So I'm open to try to be better on that."

The Bruins are open to avoiding being outshot 34-20 in the next game. They are willing to entertain additional ideas on how to bolster their anemic power play, which introduced a new wrinkle with Zdeno Chara patrolling the front of the net. They would love to have their top line of Krejci, Lucic and Horton generate more than four shots.

It also would be helpful to eliminate some of the frenetic play that seemed to dominate the final minutes of a tight hockey game. Yet, winning these kinds of games is what takes a hockey team one step closer to finding out what it takes to be a champion.

"It was nerve wracking," Marchand confessed. "Every time they got the puck, guys were on edge. And every time we got it, we were just yelling, 'Chip it out."'

Sometimes, you can't worry about how it happens. You just have to be grateful that it did.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for

Jackie MacMullan columnist