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Get used to it; Thomas is a legit NHL star

by John McGourty
The Tim "I don't get no respect" Thomas story about how he struggled for six years in five leagues to establish himself as an NHL goaltender is getting old.

Make no mistake about it, Thomas deserves all the credit he gets for outlasting his doubters and helping his Boston Bruins to a runaway lead in the Eastern Conference. But the "is he good enough?" argument is a tired theme. Facts are facts. Thomas is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.

For the second-straight season, Thomas will be one of the Eastern Conference's goaltenders at the Jan. 25 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal. Ten days before the game, Thomas had the second-highest save percentage (.933) in the NHL and ranked third with a 2.08 goals-against average. He was fourth in the NHL last season with a .921 save percentage when he went 28-19-6 and led the Bruins into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But Thomas is still fielding questions that focus more on his international wanderings than his recent strong play. To wit, this exchange from a recent press conference:

Q -- Last year was your first full year with the Bruins. Before that you had sort of shuttled back and forth between Boston and Providence.

THOMAS -- It was my second full year. This year is my third full year.

Q -- I'm saying last year was your first year that you spent the full year with the Bruins.

THOMAS -- No, it was the year before. I played 66 games the year before.
Q -- Where have you come from?

And later in the same press conference:

Q -- I saw where you played in four World Championships in 1993, '99, '05 and '08.

THOMAS -- There's one other, too. '01 or something. Five times. (It was 1998.)

It's amazing the burly Thomas doesn't just throw up his hands in frustration and walk away.

"I think I've said this before, but it isn't like I've appeared out of nowhere," Thomas explained. "The whole time, I was hiding in plain sight. I mean, I was a two-time All-American in college. I won a championship in Finland at age 23. I've had a really good record in the AHL. During the lockout year in Finland, with at least five other NHL goalies in the league, I was the No. 1 goalie in the league that year with 15 shutouts out of 54 games played.

"In my mind, it isn't like I'm playing better than I played in my whole career. 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. Just with goalies, for you to get your chance, it's much harder because there're much fewer positions. It just took me a long time to get my chance."

Thomas has given the Bruins good goaltending in good times and bad. In 2006-07, when the Bruins allowed more shots on goal than any other team, Thomas went 30-29-4 in 66 games, but his .917 save percentage was seventh-best in the NHL. Only eight teams allowed more shots last season, but Thomas went 28-19-6 and had a .921 save percentage, fourth-best in the league.

The Bruins rank 20th in shots against this season, but Thomas is there when needed once again. He said the Bruins have made giant strides in coordinated team play under second-year coach Claude Julien.

"I think playing with the same team for a couple years in a row, now this is the second year with the coach, but even last year, he just comes in and he lets everybody know what they're supposed to be doing," Thomas said. "It sounds like such a simple thing, but it's overlooked. You'd be surprised at how many systems there are, hockey systems, where the players really don't know what they're supposed to be doing.

"He's made that very clear, what it is that each individual on the ice is supposed to be doing. That makes it much easier for a goaltender because I know where my (defensemen) are supposed to be, I know which guy is supposed to be going to get that guy. It's not perfect; it's hockey. Something may happen where it doesn't always work out as planned and then we have to improvise. Knowing in my zone on the ice where all of my guys are supposed to be, it helps out a goalie. I know kind of where most of the chances are going to be coming from."

Thomas and the Bruins are benefiting from terrific and surprising backup work by Manny Fernandez, acquired in a trade a year ago but felled by leg problems. Fernandez still had some problems as recently as training camp, but has fashioned a 14-3-1 record with a 2.07 GAA and .928 save percentage.

Thomas was a late replacement in last season's All-Star Game, but played very well. He had to cancel a planned family vacation but said it was worth it. He was careful, and hopeful, to not make vacation plans this year. He said he'll have a better time now because he knows what to expect. What he expects is a lot of shots against.

He may be playing behind some of the best defensemen in the world, but he knows they're going to be playing "matador" defense.

"You got to keep in mind that they're gonna score. These are the best scorers in the world," Thomas said. "They're some of the best D in the world there, too. They're probably not going to be blocking as many shots and stuff like that. 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. I think 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."

Thomas has represented the United States five times in World Championships, but never in the Olympics. He'll be a leading candidate for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Ryan Miller, Rick DiPietro, Ty Conklin, Scott Clemmensen, Brent Johnson, Brian Boucher and Craig Anderson give American officials a rich pool from which to select.

"It would be awesome. I mean, my dream since I was 5-years-old wasn't to play in the NHL, it was to play in the Olympics," Thomas said. "The 1980 Olympics ... it made a huge impression on my life.

"Jim Craig was basically the reason I started to play goalie or certainly cemented the fact that I wanted to play goalie, from watching him at those Olympics. It's something I've been thinking about since age 5 when I was playing street hockey or pond hockey. I was thinking about the Olympics really, not the NHL, because in Michigan we didn't get all that much coverage of the NHL. It would be huge. It would be a huge honor. I hope I get the chance."

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