Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 2

All saved up

Thomas gets his chance and backstops Bruins to a shootout win

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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For the first time in his NHL career, Tim Thomas had become an afterthought.

Last month, as Tuukka Rask grabbed the starting job, Thomas found a home on the Bruins bench for six straight games. Thomas then traveled to Vancouver, where he backed up US goalie Ryan Miller for all but 10-plus minutes of Olympic action. Upon his return to Boston, Thomas played No. 2 to Rask for one more game.

Finally, last night was Thomas’s turn. He didn’t disappoint.

Returning to his TD Garden crease for the first time since Feb. 2, Thomas sparkled for 65 minutes against Toronto, repeatedly bailing out his leaky defense - the pairing of Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick was especially toxic - to send the game into the shootout.

Thomas (24 saves, most of them on high-quality shots) then foiled Phil Kessel, Jamie Lundmark, and Tyler Bozak, capping the Bruins’ 3-2 shootout win over the Maple Leafs with a series of fist pumps as his teammates swarmed around him for a well-deserved round of congratulations while 17,565 TD Garden fans hailed the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.

“I’m not going to lie - it feels really good right now,’’ said Thomas, who hadn’t won a game since Jan. 14. “First win I’ve had in long time. First win we’ve had at home in a long time. First win we’ve had at home in a shootout in a long time.

“For a number of different reasons, I feel pretty good right now. The whole team feels good.’’

Earlier this week, Claude Julien told Thomas that he’d be starting last night. It just so happened that Rask was unavailable because of a knee injury (the rookie is considered day-to-day).

“He wasn’t coming in to replace Tuukka; he was scheduled to play,’’ said the coach. “When I talked to him the other day, I told him the same thing. I said, ‘You’re a Vezina Trophy winner. You don’t go from being a great goaltender to a bad goaltender. The whole organization here, your teammates, your coaches, upper management - we all believe in you. You’ve just got to go out there, have fun playing again, and do the job you’ve always done.’

“It was nice to see him respond well. Tonight, I made sure he knew that he’d played a great game.’’

The Bruins, losers of the first 10 Garden games in 2010, were facing a supposed pushover in the Maple Leafs, the NHL’s second-worst team. Prior to the trading deadline, the Leafs shed their final spare parts when they traded Alexei Ponikarovsky to Pittsburgh for prospect Luca Caputi and veteran Martin Skoula. They then flipped Skoula to New Jersey for a 2010 fifth-round pick, while 21-year-old Caputi made his Toronto debut last night.

But the plucky Leafs threw everything they could at Thomas while taking advantage of a never-ending string of neutral- and defensive-zone lapses by the Bruins. After a Blake Wheeler giveaway, Kessel took off for a first-period breakaway. In the second, following a Wideman cough-up, Nikolai Kulemin pulled away for a solo shot on Thomas. Fredrik Sjostrom fired a close-range shot in the third. Then in overtime, after a Hunwick turnover, Kulemin cranked an uncontested shot on goal.

Thomas stopped all of them.

“He saved all of those and made a big difference in the game,’’ Zdeno Chara said. “He was the main difference in the game. Then in the shootout, he stopped all three shooters. We’re all happy for him that he’s on top of his game again. That’s what we like to see. He’s just such a fighter.’’

In the first period, Miroslav Satan, who later would score the lone shootout goal, gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead. Shawn Thornton dug a puck off the left wall in the defensive zone, spotted the winger cheating up the ice, and hit Satan with an in-stride backhand flip. Satan beat Jean-Sebastien Giguere (29 saves) five-hole. Viktor Stalberg tied the game at 15:27 of the first with a sharp-angle wrister over Thomas’s blocker.

In the second, Johnny Boychuk made it a 2-1 game when he beat Giguere with a rocket slapper from the point. But after a breakdown left the Bruins without a defenseman in front of the net, Bozak took a feed from Kulemin and tapped a close-range shot past Thomas at 6:12 of the third.

It was yet another blown third-period lead for the Bruins, whose defensive struggles appeared to be costing Thomas another win.

“What we didn’t have was some strong plays,’’ said Julien. “Lot of turnovers. Things that we know we need to get better at.’’

But Thomas wasn’t interested in seeing another loss come his way. Prior to the Olympic break, the usually affable Thomas had been pricklier than usual, insistent that his game hadn’t slipped as far as some believed. But in Vancouver, Thomas was able to relax. During Olympic practice, after Miller had vacated the rink, Thomas stayed on to take breakaway after breakaway, many of them against Kessel.

Against Finland in the semifinals, Thomas fulfilled a lifelong dream of playing in the Olympics. With his family watching in the stands, Thomas participated in the closing ceremonies.

So considering the situation - tie game, slipshod defense, first start in a month - Thomas could have cracked. Instead, he rose to the moment.

“The Olympics helped a lot,’’ Thomas said. “I came back this week in a more mentally relaxed state because of the great experience I had with the Olympics.

“I didn’t really feel all that much pressure going into tonight’s game. I was more chomping at the bit for the opportunity. Just wanted it to turn out with a good ending. It did.’’

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