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Northeast: Bruins' Thomas responds to underdog role

by James Murphy

Despite winning 30 games for a Bruins squad that struggled mightily last season, Tim Thomas was pegged as the backup after Boston acquired Manny Fernandez during the summer.
Despite being fourth in the NHL in goals-against average and second in save percentage, Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas is not among the goaltenders listed on the NHL All-Star Game ballot.

Not a problem for Thomas, the Michigan native who has made a career of flying under the radar and proving people wrong.

Despite winning 30 games for a Bruins squad that struggled mightily last season, Thomas was pegged as the backup after Boston acquired Manny Fernandez during the summer. But Fernandez struggled out of the gate and has been in and out of the lineup for the last two weeks with a knee strain.

Enter Thomas, who has kept the Bruins afloat through the first 16 games, going 6-4-2 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .950 save percentage.

“Seriously,” defenseman Aaron Ward told the Boston Herald after Thomas posted a 45-save effort in a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres Saturday. “You know what? Manny (Fernandez) has the full confidence of all the guys. We know he had an injury and he’s going to battle through this and be fine. But Tim Thomas has been incredible.”

Thomas has started eight straight games, seven of them one-goal decisions, and four in which he made 30 saves or more. He was 2-3-2 over that stretch, but he has constantly placed his teammates in a position to win, regardless of how they may have played in front of him.

“The way he’s played has been extremely important in terms of where we are right now,” coach Claude Julien said. “Timmy has really stood tall when we needed him to and he has given us a chance. Your goaltenders need to steal games for you and Timmy has done that for us on numerous occasions.”

This has been a common occurrence for Thomas, who was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round of the 1994 Entry Draft. After a stellar career at Vermont, Thomas went to the Avalanche training camp in 1997, but didn’t make the team.

Thomas then played for seven teams in five seasons, in North America and Europe, before getting a taste of the NHL with a short four-game stint for Boston in 2002-03. He would play the remainder of that season and the 2003-04 season with AHL Providence before returning overseas to play for Jokerit in Finland during the lockout season of 2004-05.

In the fall of 2005, Thomas was in Finland, preparing for another season with Jokerit, when former Boston GM Mike O’Connell signed him while Andrew Raycroft was in the midst of a holdout.

“One last chance at the dream,” Thomas said at the time.

Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen would struggle with injuries that season and by January, Thomas had become the de facto starter. He played 38 games in 2005-06 and earned a three-year contract extension.

“That was a crazy year for sure,” Thomas said. “But I knew I couldn’t pass that chance up because it was probably my last and I had worked so hard to get here.”

Last season, Thomas once again entered the season expected by many to be the backup to the highly touted Toivonen. But Toivonen battled ankle injuries all season and Thomas assumed the starter’s role again, playing 66 games and finishing with 30 wins for another sub-par Bruins squad.

But again it wasn’t enough, and the Bruins traded for Fernandez. But Thomas didn’t mind, and as he admits now, he could have used some relief last season.

“I think, yeah, I did tire out at times last season and it’s good to have a guy like Manny here now because when he gets back in, we can have a good tandem,” Thomas said.

But here he is again, proving the so-called experts wrong and helping his team stay in the hunt. According to Julien and Thomas however, it hasn’t been about proving outsiders wrong, but rather earning the faith of teammates and coaches.

“Personally, I think what matters is the respect he gets here, and if people on the outside don’t notice, they will eventually,” Julien said. “I know that we as coaches, the players, and even the fans here notice what he has done and he’s gained that respect here. He’s a proud man and it shows with him because you’ll never get a soft practice or game out of Timmy. He comes to work every day and gives his all. So if he has the respect within the family here, then that’s really what matters most.”

Thomas agreed and said Julien’s defensive system has helped everyone get on the same page.

“I think there have been times where I’ve had to pick the team up and done that, while there’s also times where maybe they’ve needed to get one in the other end and picked me up, so yeah, there’s a mutual respect there and belief in each other,” Thomas said. “But I also think that everyone buying into Claude’s system and executing well every game has made that possible. We’re all on the same page here and through that, we believe in each other and a mutual goal.”

Who’s hot -- The Senators lost only their second game, to the Capitals last Thursday, but still remained on top of the NHL standings going 2-1 over the past week. Center Mike Fisher has filled in admirably for the injured Jason Spezza, skating on the top line with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. Fisher had four assists in three games, including two in a key 3-1 win over Montreal Saturday. Heatley also had two assists in that game and has four in his last three games. Alfredsson had two goals, including the game-winner against Montreal, and has four goals in his last three games. In net, Martin Gerber continues to shine, going 2-1 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .967 save percentage. … Toronto captain Mats Sundin had three points in his last three games with a goal and two assists. … Thomas, as pointed out above, made 45 saves in 2-1 win over Buffalo Saturday and was 1-1 this past week with a 1.65 GAA and .953 save-percentage.

Shootout summary -- The Rangers, behind goals from Brendan Shanahan and Marcel Hossa, beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 in the shootout Saturday. Nik Antropov and Mats Sundin failed to score for Toronto in the shootout.

Black and Blue


Bruins -- Patrice Bergeron spoke to the media for the first time last week, urging NHL players to be more “respectful” on the ice. He also vowed to play again, but according to team sources that day could be anywhere from a month away to next season.

Bergeron was placed on Long-Term Exemption Injured Reserve as he recovers from a concussion and broken nose suffered against Philadelphia Oct. 27. By doing so, the Bruins free up Bergeron’s salary while he recovers. Forward Shawn Thornton also is on the IR with a broken bone in his left foot.

Defenseman Bobby Allen (arm), Andrew Ference (upper core), and Aaron Ward (concussion), all are expected to be ready for action Thursday when the Bruins host the Maple Leafs. Goaltender Manny Fernandez has been practicing and also is expected to be ready Thursday.

Sabres -- Buffalo received some good news on the injury front as defenseman Nolan Pratt is expected to be back in the lineup against Ottawa Thursday. Fellow blue liners Dmitri Kalinin (knee) and Teppo Numminen (heart), remain on injured reserve.

Up front, Buffalo still is missing forwards Adam Mair (sprained right ankle) and Tim Connolly (strained abdomen).

Canadiens -- The Habs cleared their injury list Tuesday with Steve Begin back from a charley horse that kept him out of the lineup for the loss to Ottawa this past Saturday.


Senators -- Center Jason Spezza has shown signs of improvement with his injured groin and will be a game-time decision against Buffalo Thursday.

Maple Leafs -- The Maple Leafs’ blue line took another hit this past Saturday when Pavel Kubina suffered an injury to the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He and fellow defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (knee) are on injured reserve.

The week ahead -- There will be two Northeast Division battles Thursday, when the Bruins host the Maple Leafs and the Senators host the Sabres.

Friday, the Sabres face another divisional foe when they host the Canadiens.

Saturday, the Northeast games continue with Boston at Montreal and Ottawa at Toronto for another installment of the Battle of Ontario.

Monday, the Senators will be in Montreal to face the Canadiens. Prior to the game, Montreal will raise Larry Robinson’s No. 19 to the rafters.

The Bruins will be in Toronto Tuesday to face the Maple Leafs again.


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