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Thomas, Luongo a study in contrast

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 10, 2011 09:23 AM

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609thomasluongo.jpg“Anybody that knows the story of Tim Thomas, he's taken a real bumpy road to get to the NHL. He's had so many obstacles in front of him that he's overcome, it makes him a battler, it makes him the perfect goaltender for our organization because that's what we are. We're a blue-collar team that goes out and works hard and earns every inch of the ice that you can get.”
- Bruins coach Claude Julien after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final

Tim Thomas was the 217th overall selection in the 1994 NHL draft, three years before Roberto Luongo was chosen fourth overall. And so the differences began there, at the very roots of two players who now perfectly represent this rapidly escalating Stanley Cup Final. Thomas and Luongo. The Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks. Will against skill.

Hockey’s quest for the Holy Grail will resume in Vancouver tonight with Game 5 of this Stanley Cup Final, and let there be no doubt now as to the most striking matchup of this series: the goalies are front and center. Thomas and Luongo simply could not be more different, stylistically and otherwise, sharing only the scrutiny that comes along with a position unlike any other in perhaps all of professional sports.

Don’t you see? Thomas and Luongo were both cheered as they came off the ice in Game 4 – the roars of approval for Thomas echoing throughout the TD Garden, the mocking jeers for Luongo coming all the way from Vancouver. Luongo was asked about the response from his fan base after being unceremoniously pulled from Game 4, the embattled goaltender dismissing the inquiry far more effectively than he turned away any pucks.

“Next question,” Luongo said.

Actually, Roberto, it’s the still same question:

Is Luongo a potential weak link on these Canucks, a gifted regular season goalie who cracks at the most critical moments?

Thomas knows all of this too well, of course, the questions about him and his “battlefly” style having followed him since, well, forever. Thomas was 32 before he became an NHL starter. He has been described as everything from unorthodox to unconventional to unable. That last criticism came with regard to his ability to lead a team to a championship, a long-standing question given an, er, acrobatic style prompting the sternest traditionalists to wonder whether he plays with enough control.

Sure enough, when Thomas lunged at Alexandre Burrows and took himself out of position to help facilitate Burrows’ overtime winner in Game 2, the questions began anew, assuming they ever went away at all.

“I have a pretty good idea of how to play goalie,” a defiant Thomas answered. “I'm not going to be taking suggestions or advice at this time. I'm just going to keep playing the way I have.”

Then Thomas went out and held the Canucks to one goal combined in Games 3 and 4 at the TD Garden, turning away 78 of 79 shots with a combination of steady and spectacular saves that have brought the Bruins right back into this series, placing them two wins away from their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.

Tim Thomas answered, as he always has.

Which is what Luongo needs to do now.

Of course, professional sports are spotted with players lacking that magical it, a competitiveness, tenacity or poise that is impossible to measure. Ask Alex Rodriguez about this. Or LeBron James. Or Peyton Manning or Brett Favre. Each is among the most physically gifted players in the history of his game, but the winning (if there has been any at all) has never quite been quite in line with the ability. This is the class that Luongo has been placed in, the curse that comes with being a supremely talented player chosen high in the draft.

Then there are the ones like Thomas, sixth-round draft picks regarded as the runts of the litter. Those players have no choice but to learn how to fight.

On a broader level, the same is true of these Canucks and Bruins, the former a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and led the NHL in everything this year, the latter a club that must support its talent with physical play, grit, desire. Not a single player on the Bruins possesses the skill of Daniel or Henrik Sedin, whom the Canucks chose with the second and third overall selections of the 1999 draft. David Krejci was a second-round choice, 63rd overall. Brad Marchand was a third-round choice. Even Patrice Bergeron was a second-round pick, the kind of player whom the Bruins refer to as “responsible.”

Behind all those men stand Luongo and Thomas, the first-rounder and the sixth-rounder, No. 4 overall versus No. 217. They are now the poster boys for this series. Both men will be back in goal tonight for Game 5, the questioners still following them, albeit far closer to Luongo now than to Thomas. And the team that wins this Stanley Cup Final may very well be the one with the goalie who can most effectively function amid the doubts and whispers.

Thomas is fueled by those voices, it seems.

Tonight, all of Vancouver and the Canucks wonder whether Luongo can do the same.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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