- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- As much as the Boston Bruins need a 60-minute effort from each player in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night, it's even more critical for Tim Thomas to be at his best.
"We need Timmy and I know he's going to be huge for us next game," Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron said. "Everyone in front of him has to do their job. It comes down to a team effort. It's not just about one guy. We need to play our team game and go out there and play to win and take advantage of our home ice."
In a way, it is about one guy for the Bruins. If the Bruins bring their A-game at TD Garden on Friday night, they should advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 21 years. If they don't, but Thomas does, they should still come out on top.
It's no exaggeration to say Thomas holds the Bruins' playoff fate in his hands. They've advanced this far in large part because Thomas has arguably been the MVP of the playoffs.
Game 5 was a perfect example. By most accounts, the Bruins were outplayed on their home ice by the Lightning but still prevailed because Thomas shut down Tampa Bay, stopping 33 of 34 shots. The Lightning had much more success in Game 6, putting 5 of 26 shots past Thomas, who appeared frustrated at times.
Which Thomas will show up in Game 7? Will it be the one who stood on his head in the last game at the Garden or the one who has given up a total of 19 goals in four games in this series? The answer will play a big role in whether the Bruins are still playing hockey next week.
"Timmy has been really good at bouncing back and playing solid for us. Our team has been really resilient that way, and we don't expect anything different from our guys tomorrow," coach Claude Julien said.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher also expects Thomas to show the form that prompted him to call the netminder an "enigma" after Game 5.
"I guess we solved it for [Game 6], but every game is an opportunity for them and for us. And I'm sure he's going to come up big in [Game 7]," Boucher said. "He said they were going to win for sure [in Game 5]. So I'm sure he's going to come up big in the next game. So we're expecting that. And we know he's a very good goaltender. So today is today. But the next day is going to be another story that we have to figure him out."
Julien has praised his Vezina Trophy finalist at every turn this season and for good reason. He knows how important Thomas is to the team's success.
"You just have to look back at every year at the playoffs, teams that have had success have been able to rely on very good goaltenders," Julien said.
"You want to give them credit, but at the end of the day it's a team thing. When you've got a hot goaltender, it just makes you that much better."
The 37-year-old didn't play a minute of playoff hockey last spring as Tuukka Rask had taken over the starting role, but Thomas does have plenty of big-game postseason experience. During the Bruins' 2009 playoff run, he played well and helped the team reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Carolina Hurricanes. Boston, however, lost that game 3-2 in overtime on home ice when Thomas allowed a tough game-winning goal.
He already has a Game 7 under his belt this postseason, when the Bruins went the distance against the Montreal Canadiens in the conference quarterfinals. Thomas made 34 saves in the team's 4-3 overtime win.
"We've been in this situation before. We were up 3-2 against Montreal on the road and couldn't close it out, so we went back home in Game 7 and got the job done," Thomas said.
The Bruins also have a challenge on their hands with Tampa Bay netminder Dwayne Roloson. He enters Game 7 with a 7-0 career record when his team is facing elimination. Roloson, who allowed four goals on just 20 shots in Game 6 but made some big saves, became just the second goaltender in NHL history to win each of his first seven elimination games, joining Chico Resch.
It should be a dandy of a goaltending duel in Game 7 at the Garden. Tim Thomas versus Dwayne Roloson. Of the three goaltenders remaining the playoffs, including the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, Thomas is the strongest.
The Bruins will need the best he's got in Game 7.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.