- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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Boston must earn its goals with muscle and hustle, a grind-it-out, physical brand of hockey that takes time to establish. Yet the very nature of the Stanley Cup finals is one of urgency, especially when your team is trailing 2-1 in the series and Game 4 is a must-win situation.
Your opponent is known for fleet-footed skaters, talented high-octane scorers who specialize in quick strikes.
This would be a problem if your goaltender was someone other than Tim Thomas.
Thomas has evolved as the most reliable component of the Cup finals, the sure thing, the redoubtable backstop, the player who has provided the Bruins with a decided edge that will serve them well as they return to Vancouver after a convincing 4-0 shutout Wednesday night.
Funny. You'd never know Thomas turned back 38 shots. You'd never know he has given up just one goal in the past two games and only five goals for the series.
Tim Thomas as a dominant goalie? The Vancouver Canucks aren't signing off on that, at least not publicly.
"I think we're giving him too much respect, to be honest," sniffed Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa. "We're not shooting enough pucks at him.
"He's leaky. You've seen pucks go through all playoffs long. We've got to make his life a little more difficult."
There's nothing better than a hot goaltender in the playoffs. And there's nothing worse than a goalie who allows that debilitating sentiment -- doubt -- to creep into the minds of your hockey team.
Ask Vancouver how confident it feels about Roberto Luongo now that the Bruins have knotted the series at 2-all. While the players said all the right things in their hushed dressing room Wednesday night about their own goaltender -- talk about leaky -- it's clear who has the mental edge in net.
Luongo's past postseason woes are well documented, although it appeared he'd put that all behind him with a brilliant performance in Game 1. But the numbers were skewed in the wrong direction for him in the two games at the Garden. Luongo has allowed 12 goals in the past two games. Still, Vigneault not only gave Luongo a vote of confidence after the loss, but he too took a swipe at Thomas.
"His numbers are great," Vigneault said, "but in the past he's given up a lot of goals on occasion. He hasn't done that yet, and we're partly responsible for that."
The "let's devalue Thomas' résumé" tactic is an interesting one from a clearly frustrated Vancouver team. Unlike the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tried to kill Thomas with kindness, the Canucks have no intention of playing nice with the 37-year-old redhead who, Daniel Sedin admitted, "is standing on his head."
While the Canucks outshot the locals by a two-to-one margin in the first period (12-6) and had peppered Thomas with 25 shots through two periods, the Bruins had deposited the puck in the back of the net on three of their 18 chances.
Once again, the Boston goalie bought his Bruins time, and once again, they rewarded him by blowing open the game open.
Thomas had plenty of help from his defense. Zdeno Chara and his troops thwarted the offensive advances of the Sedin twins, who were limited to four shots between them and have been virtually invisible in this series, save for the physical pounding they've taken.
As for the vaunted Canucks power play, after posting another goose egg in Game 4 (0-for-6), its total for the series is 1-for-22. It has been so bad no one is talking anymore about Boston's failings in the same category.
Asked how Vancouver can solve Thomas, Henrik Sedin responded, "I don't know; do you have an answer for me? He's playing well right now, like [Luongo] when he's hot. When top goalies like him are playing well, it's tough to score goals. We need to get a greasy one."
There's a tendency to overlook the gigantic influence of Thomas in this series because it's sexier to talk about the diminutive Brad Marchand and his ability to score thrilling goals, or the skilled David Krejci and the magic he displays, or the physical beating the Bruins delivered to the Canucks over the past few days.
Yet Thomas inserted himself into that discussion as well. On Monday night, he cross checked Henrik Sedin to his knees when Sedin encroached on his crease. On Wednesday, he traded chops with Alex Burrows before sending him to the ice with a crosscheck.
"They've been getting the butt end of my stick," Thomas said. "That was the third time it happened on that power play.
"I thought I'd give [Burrows] a little love tap to let him know, 'I know what you're doing.'"
Thomas confessed he's "isolated himself" from the excitement that has gripped Boston over its rejuvenated hockey team in order to maintain his focus. He has kept things simple, limiting his time off the ice to lounging by his pool and talking with his children.
"My little boy keeps trying to get me to play hockey, but I tell him, 'I'm a little too tired right now,'" Thomas said.
He will go the distance in the postseason without a reprieve, and that is fine with him. It beats the alternative. Thomas watched helplessly last season as his team blew a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers, unable to participate because of a hip injury that required surgery and cast some doubt on his future in the NHL.
There is no doubt any longer. He has given the Bruins new life in a 2-all series, one that will be infinitely more difficult for Boston once action shifts back to Vancouver on Friday for Game 5 and the Canucks restart their own mojo.
Thomas does not plan to be "leaky." He does not plan to read about the fact that someone said he was "leaky."
"I'm just going to keep on doing what I've been doing," Thomas said.
And until further notice, that's bad news for the Vancouver Canucks.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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