- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- Before Tim Thomas became a full-time goaltender for the Boston Bruins and proved his worth to the hockey world, he spent the early part of his professional career toiling around the minors and played in Finland.
He wanted nothing more than to be given an opportunity for a chance to play in the NHL.
Prior to the start of the 1999-2000 season, Thomas signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning on a two-way contract and worked out with the team during training camp. He was shipped to the IHL, where he played the entire season with the Detroit Vipers.
He was 25.
Nothing came to fruition with the Lightning, so Thomas went back to Finland -- where he's considered a hockey god -- for the next two seasons.
When he returned to the U.S. in 2002, he signed with the Bruins, and the rest, as they say, is history.
There have been many weird twists and turns during Thomas' career. In fact, he has many connections with the Lightning, and those all will play out when he faces Tampa in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning with Game 1 on Saturday at TD Garden.
Thomas was not recruited out of high school by any collegiate hockey program, so he played junior hockey for a season. The next summer, UMass-Lowell and Michigan Tech both recruited Thomas, but both teams had All-American goaltenders -- Dwayne Roloson and Jamie Ram, respectively -- who were juniors and returning for their senior seasons.
Coaches at both schools were honest with Thomas, telling him he could redshirt for a year or play a limited role.
"I chose not to go to UMass-Lowell because of Dwayne Roloson, basically," Thomas said of the now-41-year-old starting goaltender for the Lightning, one of the main reasons Tampa has reached the conference final. "It changed everything."
When the University of Vermont called in the summer of 1993, Thomas was told that if he went to school there, he would have a chance to play immediately. The Catamounts weren't promising Thomas the starting job; he would have to earn it.
Thomas was the starting goalie for UVM for four years, beginning in the 1993-94 season. It was then that he became teammates with a fellow freshman -- a diminutive forward from Quebec named Martin St. Louis.
As with Thomas, people always doubted St. Louis could play at the NHL level. Thomas' style was too chaotic, and St. Louis was too small for professional hockey.
"Early on, our careers kind of just got labeled as people that would never be able to do it at the NHL level because of those two things," Thomas said. "We both had to battle to get to the NHL. We took long roads to get there."
St. Louis reached the NHL sooner than Thomas. St. Louis began his career with the Lightning during the 2000-01 season, and he's never looked back. He even won a Stanley Cup with Tampa in 2003-04.
Now, Thomas will be attempting to stop one of the league's prolific goal scorers.
"We're both very competitive and we leave everything on the ice," Thomas said. "I know it's not going to be easy playing Marty St. Louis, so I have to be ready for that."
Both St. Louis and Thomas have silenced the naysayers.
Even entering the 2010-11 season, there were doubts Thomas could compete at a high level and be the netminder who carries a team toward a Stanley Cup. He won the Vezina in 2008-09 but struggled last season, mainly due to a hip injury. He began rehab in mid-April 2010, and by the end of the playoffs, when the Bruins lost to the Philadelphia Flyers, Thomas began to feel better. But he still needed offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip.
Some thought it would be another roadblock for Thomas. But he didn't think that way.
Once his rehab was complete and training camp began, Thomas realized he felt better than expected, which gave him the confidence to play the way he wanted; he didn't have to worry about changing his style due to the procedure.
"I could just play, and that added to my success," he said.
The Bruins were still cautious with Thomas, but once the team began the exhibition season overseas, it was evident he was 100 percent ready to play.
"Timmy has been remarkable all year," said veteran and future Hall of Famer Mark Recchi. "The day we played the exhibition game in Czechoslovakia, from that day on, he stood on his head all year. We have a great [goaltending] tandem, and they have a great relationship, Tuukka [Rask] and Timmy. You don't see this very often through the stretch of the whole year, but [Thomas] really hasn't had many games where he didn't play well. It's been great to see. His focus has been unbelievable."
That focus began last summer. All his accomplishments this year were goals he set for himself during his hip rehab.
He didn't necessarily set out to lead the NHL with a 2.00 goals-against average; his goal wasn't to record the highest save percentage since the league began including that stat in its official release package in 1982-83. His .938 mark surpassed the previous record held by Dominik Hasek (.937) in 1998-99 with the Buffalo Sabres.
Thomas, 37, had other ideas.
"The one goal I did have was to be a Vezina finalist," Thomas said. "That's one of the things I thought about last summer. And one dream I thought a lot about was raising the Stanley Cup over my head. In that way, I'm not surprised [by my success] because they are goals that I made."
The one goal I did have was to be a Vezina finalist. That's one of the things I thought about last summer. And one dream I thought a lot about was raising the Stanley Cup over my head. In that way, I'm not surprised [by my success] because they are goals that I made.
”-- Bruins goalie Tim Thomas
Thomas is a Vezina finalist and should win his second trophy as the league's best goaltender. And he's only eight wins from hoisting the Stanley Cup in celebration.
A year ago, there weren't too many people who believed Thomas could rebound with the kind of season he has enjoyed in 2010-11.
"Who would have thought it? I was probably the only one who was thinking it," Thomas said. "It was something that was at least a possibility. I understand why other people are surprised, but I'm not surprised myself."
While the Bruins were in the playoffs last spring, Thomas had a different perspective for the first time in his career, watching from the bench. Every team he has ever been on, he was the starting goaltender if it reached the playoffs.
He was on the bench last spring and served as Rask's backup. Thomas wasn't bitter about the situation; instead it fueled his desire.
"It really increased my hunger to be able to play in the playoffs [again]," Thomas said. "What a gift and an opportunity it is, to be in the NHL playoffs and competing at the highest level for the Stanley Cup."
This season, it was Rask who was the backup, but based on the way Thomas was playing the entire year, Rask chalked it up as just another learning experience. He had a good seat to watch Thomas become a Vezina finalist.
"It's pretty unbelievable," Rask said. "He broke those records and was that guy every night, showing his best. That's not easy to do when you play  games and not having that bad game. That's the ultimate goal for every goalie, and during the regular season, he pretty much reached it. It was great to see."
At this time last year, Thomas was preparing for the uncertainty of hip surgery. He did not know how it would affect his career. His performance this season might have surprised many, but Thomas knew he had it in him.
"It is amazing," Thomas said. "I haven't taken too much time to really focus on how different it is this year compared to last year because I'm still too busy putting all my focus toward trying to accomplish more."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.