BOSTON - Vezina Trophy finalist Tim Thomas stopped every shot and gave the Boston Bruins a chance for the biggest prize of all — the Stanley Cup.
Forget their 20-year absence from the final. Don't talk about their epic playoff collapse of last season. And certainly don't mention their powerless power play.
None of that matters after the Bruins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 on Friday night on Nathan Horton's goal with 7:33 left in the penalty-free Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
"I'm just happy to see those guys smiling in the dressing room," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "Right now we're four wins from winning the Stanley Cup."
The Bruins will open the Stanley Cup final Wednesday in Vancouver against the Western Conference champion Canucks.
Boston won its most recent championship in 1972 and hadn't reached the final since 1990, when it lost to the Edmonton Oilers.
The Bruins left far behind the spectre of last year's playoff failure. They blew a 3-0 lead in games and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal, losing 4-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers.
"From the beginning of the season, we knew we had some unfinished business," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "Guys were hungry throughout the playoffs."
This season, they squandered 3-2 series leads in the first round against Montreal and then against Tampa Bay. But they beat the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime in Game 7, with Horton scoring the winning goal. Then the forward, playing in the post-season for the first time in his career after five seasons with the Florida Panthers, came through again with his eighth playoff goal.
"He certainly has played like a big-game player," Julien said.
So has Thomas — all season.
The 37-year-old goalie led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage after missing all of last year's playoffs because of a hip injury. After off-season surgery, he was as good as ever, and that includes the 2008-09 season when he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.
"I think a lot of people thought I was over the hill," Thomas said. "I knew it wasn't true. I put in a lot of work over the summer and I've had an unbelievable year. I've been blessed."
He made 24 saves in his third career playoff shutout and second of the Lightning series. Horton's goal spoiled an outstanding game by Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, who stopped 37 shots.
Thomas' playoff performance is even more remarkable because the Bruins scored just five goals on 61 power plays in the post-season. But there were no power plays for either side on Friday night in the clean, hard-hitting game.
"There wasn't anything out there to call," Roloson said. "Give the referees credit. for not disrupting the flow of the game."
Horton beat Roloson by deflecting a pass from left to right across the slot from David Krejci.
"It is hard to explain how good this feeling is," Horton said.
His goal set off a loud celebration among Bruins fans, who have waited a long time for a trip to the finals.
With three seconds left and the puck in the Lightning zone, Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron raised his stick while standing in the "spoked B" logo symbolizing the Bruins at centre ice. And when the game ended, Thomas raised both arms and arched his back against the net that the Lightning never reached in the decisive game as yellow and black towels given to fans fluttered to the ice.
"It's great to be a part of something amazing. That was the highest level of concentration I have experienced," Bergeron said. "I couldn't wait to jump on Timmy and enjoy the moment."
The Bruins improved to 2-3 in Game 7s under Julien but have won the last two. They're 11-10 overall in Game 7s.
Andrew Ference started the only scoring play on the left side behind the red line with a pass to Krejci, also on the left. Horton was on the same side, but when Krejci got the puck, Horton veered to the right. Krejci skated in and threaded a pass to Horton, who put the puck in the open side between Roloson and the left post.
"I don't think he could have stopped that puck and I don't think he could have done better than he did tonight," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "It's hard to look at. One little defensive mistake."
And the Bruins weren't about to squander this lead.
"Once they went up 1-0, they really came back (on defence) with five guys and it was tough to get anything," said Vincent Lecavalier, who had six goals and 13 assists in the playoffs. "We got a few shots, but it was tough to get the rebounds."
Roloson fell to 7-1 in elimination games during his career, including 4-1 this post-season. Tampa Bay rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Pittsburgh in the first round, with Roloson shutting out the Penguins 1-0 in Game 7 on the road. But after beating the Bruins in Game 6 to force one more contest, the Lightning's comeback fortunes changed.
"They have guys that can put the puck in the net and defend," Boucher said. "Obviously, they've got it all."
Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos was struck in the face by a puck early in the second period and briefly left the game. He was hit on the left side of the head off a hard shot from the right point by Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk and he immediately dropped to the ice. There was some blood on the ice when the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008 got up and skated quickly to his bench, holding his face.
He missed about five minutes of game time, then returned with a full cage face shield in place of the visor he had been wearing.
Boston's Milan Lucic had the best scoring opportunity in the first when Krejci fed him for a breakaway. But Lucic shot the puck into Roloson with just under five minutes left.
The Bruins also had solid chances late in the second. Roloson made a pad save on Mark Recchi's shot from a few feet away then made another when Recchi shot the rebound with just under 2 1/2 minutes left in the period.
"This is a great moment. (It's) been a long time for Boston. How long has it been actually?" Thomas said, "also a long journey for me to get here. Can't be too happy too long, though, unless you are the last man standing."
Notes: Tampa Bay's Sean Bergenheim, third in the playoffs with nine goals after scoring just 14 in the regular season, missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury that also kept him out of the last two periods of Game 5. ... The 41-year-old Roloson played in his 50th post-season game. Thomas appeared in his 36th. ... The date of the game, May 27, is the latest the Bruins have played in club history. ... The Lightning have three players remaining from their 2004 championship team — Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina, who missed the last 10 games with an upper body injury. ... Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling attended the game wearing a Bruins jersey.