VANCOUVER -- From Burlington, Vt., to Birmingham, Ala., and Hamilton, Ont., to Helsinki, Finland, Tim Thomas traveled the globe to craft his ability to stop hockey pucks.
He's played in plenty of big games at various levels. He played in the Frozen Four in 1996 with Martin St. Louis for Vermont. Thomas has been to the finals in SM-liiga, the top league in Finland three times and won in 1998, with an HIFK team that included future NHL stars Brian Rafalski, Olli Jokinen and Kimmo Timonen.
There have been AHL playoff games and NHL playoff contests and world championships. After four years in college and 14 years as a professional in six leagues, Thomas will lead his Boston Bruins onto the ice Wednesday for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
"The reality is, for me anyways, this may be the only Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals that I ever have in my career," Thomas said. "If we happen to make it again, hopefully we can win before [Game] 7. But it's a big game. When we're in the garage or driveway playing as a kid and you're fantasizing, well, I was Stevie Yzerman, which doesn't make sense for a goalie, but you're saying to yourself, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. You're not saying Game 6, you know? So this is really what every kid dreams about."
Thomas plays a position that has evolved during his career, trending toward uniformity in technique, style and philosophy. He has always been a unique character, from his improvisational skills on the ice to how he handles the media.
To put it simply, there aren't many goaltenders who laugh more on the ice than Thomas, and there aren't many who would eschew getting ready to stop the puck for a two-handed body check on last season's League MVP during the Cup Final.
He plays with a passion that personifies what his coach calls a "blue-collar team." Thomas has also been the biggest reason why that team is one victory from claiming the Cup.
There is no question who the best or most valuable player in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been. Thomas has the second-highest save percentage (.937) of any goaltender to win at least 15 games in one postseason, trailing only Jean-Sebastien Giguere's .945 for Anaheim in 2003.
If the Bruins prevail Wednesday night at Rogers Arena, Thomas will be an easy choice to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. If Vancouver wins, it is certainly possible he becomes the first player since Giguere to win it in a losing effort, and that seems like a certainty if it's a relatively low-scoring contest.
Thomas also has a chance to earn some records in the final game of the season. He needs one save to set the standard for the most in one postseason, and nine shots against will give him that mark as well.
He can also pass Johnny Bower's 233 saves from 1964 in one Cup Final with 33 stops in Game 7. Facing 42 shots against the Canucks in Game 7 isn't out of the question, which would put Thomas first on the all-time Final list of shots faced, topping Bower in this case too.
"I'll take some time this summer to reflect and, you know, think about those type of things," Thomas said. "As of right now, the most important goal that we've set for ourselves as a team is still not accomplished. As of right now, all the focus is on that one thing, and I'll try to answer your question better when it's all over."
His charisma, not to mention the feistiness around his crease, has probably earned Thomas many more fans during this Cup Final. He joked after Game 6 about the team's problems with 3-0 leads in the past -- not only a nod to Boston's devastating collapse against Philadelphia last season but how far the Bruins have come since.
The day before Game 7 a reporter started a question with, "We're standing here before Game 7," and Thomas quickly interjected, "You're sitting, so am I." If the 37-year-old goaltender wasn't loose about 24 hours before the biggest game of his life, he did a fine job of at least acting like it.
"Let's put it this way, so far I think his play speaks for itself. I don't think just before Game 7 he's decided to change, so that's been his way of getting ready," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "He's enjoying the moment. He's relaxed and when the time for the game to happen comes, he's focused and ready to go. I think it's a great way to be, as a player, because you can't be tense and feel the pressure day in, day out, night in, night out. You have to be able to release at times and re-focus and get that energy back. The only way you can do that is by relaxing."
A win on Wednesday night would be the resounding finish to one of the greatest seasons ever produced by an NHL goaltender. Thomas would accept the Conn Smythe Trophy, wait for Zdeno Chara to lift the Stanley Cup (and here's guessing he won't have to watch too many other guys skate around with it after Chara before it is his turn) and, after a parade in Boston, be on a plane to Las Vegas where he will likely collect the Vezina Trophy for the second time in three years next week.
"For Timmy, I mean, for Timmy and all the other players that haven't had the opportunity to raise the Cup, I want nothing more than for them to enjoy that feeling and get a chance to feel that, especially what we've been through as a group," said Mark Recchi, who has done so twice before. "It's one of the best groups I've been with through the course of the year, from day one of training camp till now. I want them to feel it, and I want them to enjoy it.
"We've got a 60-minute, hard-working game ahead of us and we're going to lay it on the line. For what Timmy has done for us all year it's remarkable and we all want this for each other. It's special to get to this point, and we hope we can realize our dream."