SUNRISE, Fla. -- Tim Thomas declined to talk about his first meeting against his former team, the Boston Bruins, until after his first time playing against them Thursday, but it remained the topic of conversation at BB&T Center at the morning skate.
Thomas, who hasn't played since leaving a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 8 because of a groin injury, will make his return to the lineup Thursday when the Florida Panthers face the team he led to the Stanley Cup title in 2011.
The announcement that Thomas would play against Boston first was made on the Panthers' Twitter account Wednesday, and coach Kevin Dineen confirmed it after his team's morning skate.
"It's a good thing, it's a good storyline," Dineen said. "It's exciting for our team to have Tim in net. He's been out for a week. I think you always get excited playing against your old team. I was in Portland, Maine [coaching in the American Hockey League], and New England really supports their sports teams and Tim really left his fingerprint on that area with his Stanley Cup championship. First time back where they'll run into each other and I think it is an exciting night for all involved."
Thomas won 196 regular-season games during his tenure with the Bruins and another 29 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He led the team to a championship in 2011, a season in which he won the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies. He also won the Vezina Trophy in 2009.
While Thomas wasn't talking, his teammates said it was a big game for the 39-year-old goalie.
"For him I think it's going to be emotional," Kris Versteeg said. "It's probably going to take a couple of minutes to settle in the game; that's when he'll be back to normal. After the ride he went through in Boston, anyone who says that it's just another game, it definitely isn't. It's an exciting time.
"You have a lot of pride and respect for the organization you did that [won a Stanley Cup] with. Obviously I'm sure he feels the same way. He's probably excited about [Thursday] and hopefully with his play gets us a big win."
Thomas' first appearance against the Bruins clearly is a big deal for the Panthers.
Not only was his return announced on Twitter, the team's website has a full-page advertisement promoting his return and his battle with former backup Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins, for their part, have tried to downplay the matchup.
"I don't care," Boston coach Claude Julien said Wednesday before the Thomas announcement was made. "I really don't care. And I'm saying that in a way that we've kind of turned the page on that. When I say I don't care, it's not about not caring about the person, it's more about our team. We need to win some games on this road trip. And whoever is in net we're going to have to beat no matter what.
"I don't think it's anything different than playing against guys that you've traded. We've traded some players that were really popular on our team. You lose players like that, that were well-respected in the dressing room, and you've got to turn the page. We've got to do the same thing here with Timmy."
In the game Thursday, Thomas will be facing 13 players who were teammates on Boston's 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team.
After Thomas decided to sit out last season, the Bruins traded him to the New York Islanders to help their salary-cap situation. His former teammates are glad to see Thomas back in the NHL.
"It's the best League in the world and you want the best players in the world to be playing," center Chris Kelly said. "Timmy has proven in the past that he's an elite goalie and very capable of playing.
"Timmy was a huge reason for our success back in 2011. I wish Timmy the best. He made his decision and I respect his decision going forward. I have no hard feelings towards Timmy. I hope he plays well; I hope we play a little bit better."
Thomas said the desire to make a comeback this season came as he watched the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
"I believe that once you leave the team and the next year they go to the Stanley Cup Final, it's kind of a little bitter," Bruins center David Krejci said. "But it is what it is. It was his decision. He made a decision to come back and he's back. For us, he's not our teammate anymore so we're just going to take him as our enemy and try to get two points there."
Thomas will be making his fourth start of the season with the Panthers, with whom he signed Sept. 26 after coming to training camp on a professional tryout.
In his first game in a Florida uniform, Thomas stopped 25 of 27 shots to help the Panthers beat the Dallas Stars 4-2 on Oct. 3. But Thomas was pulled after the second period of his second start, allowing five goals on 28 shots in a 7-0 loss against the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 5.
Thomas was injured at 7:31 of the first period against Philadelphia when he made a sudden move after a slap shot from the blue line went wide and bounced hard off the end boards. The Flyers scored on the play when defenseman Braydon Coburn fired a simple wrist shot from the point after seeing Thomas struggle to get back in position.
The Panthers are hoping Thomas' return can spark a turnaround after the team got off to a 2-5-0 start.
"It was probably a game that was circled on his calendar, as it would be for mine if it was my old team," Versteeg said. "I think he's excited about it. I think there's a lot of Bruins fans, too, that heavily respect what he did for their organization. They're excited maybe about seeing him [Thursday] play as well. It's kind of funny how he misses a few games with an injury and this is the game he comes back for. Hopefully the emotion he plays with -- he plays with emotion every game -- can bring us two points."
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