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Bruins G Thomas picked for 2nd All-Star game

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MONTREAL (AP) - Tim Thomas' good news last year turned into a bit of bummer for the family when a last-minute invitation he got to the All-Star game put off plans for a New York vacation.

The backstop for the Eastern Conference's best first-half team learned his lesson and kept the weekend free this year. It paid off when the Boston Bruins' No. 1 goalie earned a return trip to the midseason classic, not as a fill-in but as a top choice from the start.

"I didn't plan anything this year. Just in case," Thomas said. "I was just going to kind of take it as it went."

Instead of heading to New York a year ago, the Thomas clan diverted to Atlanta for the All-Star game. His young daughter was placated when told there was a nice aquarium to visit - every bit of a Plan B for her as Thomas was to the East roster.

Thomas made the most of the trip, too. When Bruins teammate Marc Savard scored with 20.9 seconds left in the third period, Thomas skated off with an 8-7 All-Star victory over the West.

Now the 34-year-old goalie is back.

It's true that New Jersey Devils stalwart goalie Martin Brodeur is missing again, just as his absence opened a place for Thomas a year ago, but it would be hard to argue that Thomas didn't deserve to be there no matter who was healthy this time around.

Helped by working in a tandem with solid netminder Manny Fernandez, Thomas has gone 20-5-4 in 29 appearances this season. He has a 2.09 goals-against average and has stopped over 93 percent of the shots he has faced.

Add it up, and it's no mystery why the Bruins are 34-8-5, own a 13-point Northeast Division lead over the All-Star hosting Montreal Canadiens, and sit in a tie with San Jose for first-place overall in the NHL.

Thomas is expected to get one period of playing time Sunday during the 57th NHL All-Star game, held at Montreal's Bell Centre as part of the Canadiens franchise's 100th anniversary celebration.

"Last year I was kind of a replacement, so this one is nice because I was picked outright," Thomas said. "Second of all, when you can go there and you're the team that everyone is looking up to this year, that everybody is chasing, it definitely gives you a little bit of inner confidence."

Forgive him for bristling when it's suggested he burst onto the NHL scene out of nowhere.

He has a long resume that includes him being a two-time All-American at Vermont and a leading goalie in the AHL. He also enjoyed a sparkling stint in Finland during the NHL lockout, and now he is making his mark in the big leagues. It just took him a long time to get there.

Thomas was chosen in the ninth round of the 1994 draft by the former Quebec Nordiques before heading to Europe and various minor leagues. He finally got to the Bruins for a four-game cameo during the 2002-03 season, but was back in the AHL for the next two before he headed to Finland during the lockout.

Outside of a 26-game tour in AHL Providence in the 2005-06 campaign, Thomas has been up with the Bruins ever since. He won 30 games two seasons ago and followed it with 28 victories last season when the Bruins got to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The stay was short. The Bruins were ousted in a disappointing seven-game loss to the Canadiens.

"What was maybe unfair to him earlier in his career is he was maybe not getting as much help from the guys in front of him as he does now," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "He's getting the recognition now he probably could have gotten earlier in his career."

Even though he is sharing significant time with Fernandez, who has 14 wins in 19 games, Thomas is well on his way to his best season - statistically and with a whole lot of team success, too. The Flint, Mich., native also has set his sights on making the U.S. Olympic team for next year's Vancouver Games.

"In my mind it isn't like I'm playing better than I played in my whole career," Thomas said. "It's kind of me continuing. Now, do I think I've gotten a little bit better in the past few years? Of course. But I've tried to get better every year in my career.

"It wasn't like I went from a guy who couldn't play street hockey to playing in the NHL. That's my point. I've just kind of been there all along, plugging along. With goalies, for you to get your chance it's much harder because there's much fewer positions. It just took me a long time to get my chance."

And people have noticed.

After not knowing what to expect a year ago when he got to Atlanta, this All-Star stuff is quickly becoming the norm to him. Thomas even understands that the game isn't a showcase for the goalies.

The NHL is very goal-conscious, and that doesn't mean setting objectives and striving for them. Offense is the way to create buzz in the regular season, and like in the NBA, All-Star weekend is all about highlighting the talented players and the scoring skills they possess.

In the past two games, there have been an average of 18 goals. That is tame compared to North America's 14-12 win over the World All-Star team in 2001.

"You've got to keep in mind that they're going to score. These are the best scorers in the world," said Thomas, who allowed four goals on 18 West shots in the final 20 minutes last year. "Having been there, playing in the third period, I happened to get in during a tight part of game. I think actually I was fortunate enough to have a little bit better defense than a couple of the other goalies had, the way it worked out. But it's still fun.

"It's even more of a challenge. Last year, I think I was a little bit nervous. I had a great time, enjoyed myself, but I was a little bit nervous being on that stage. This year I'll enjoy it probably even more because I think I'll be able to relax a little bit more, soak it in a little bit better."

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