After winning the Vezina Trophy last season, Tim Thomas
had every reason to believe he could be Team USA's starter at the Winter Olympics. It didn't happen, but ironically enough, that might have been the best thing that could have happened to him.
Thomas' inability to repeat his Vezina-winning form during the first four months of the season, combined with the brilliance of Ryan Miller
, left Thomas watching instead of playing in Vancouver -- after watching rookie Tuukka Rask
play in Boston's last six games before the Olympic break. Still, just being a member of Team USA and making the trip to the Games seems to have helped him find the form that made him the NHL's best goaltender last season.
"The Olympics seemed to help a lot," said Thomas, who has looked like his 2008-09 self while allowing just six goals in three games since the break. "The Olympics were a fantastic experience. I was practicing on a daily basis against great talent. But for me, because I knew Ryan Miller
was playing, it was kind of a mental break. I could just relax and practice -- and that helped, to step away from the NHL.
"It was like going back and practicing on your farm or whatever. You just get away and you get back to playing and doing the things that you do well."
Thomas' season got off to a bad start when he was beaten four times on opening night in the Bruins' 4-1 loss to Washington. He never found the consistent form that carried him to the Vezina last season -- and got much less help from his teammates. Boston has gone from one of the NHL's top offensive teams to one of the worst -- making any imperfections in Thomas' game stand out.
"The Olympics seemed to help a lot. The Olympics were a fantastic experience. I was practicing on a daily basis against great talent. But for me, because I knew Ryan Miller was playing, it was kind of a mental break. I could just relax and practice -- and that helped, to step away from the NHL." -- Tim Thomas
It's not that he has been awful -- he's 15-16-7 with a 2.47 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. But those numbers pale in comparison to last season's 36-11-7 record, 2.10 GAA and .933 save percentage.
"I never really got into a rhythm this year," Thomas said following Saturday's 37-save performance in a 3-2 win against the New York Islanders
. "I don't know if that was my fault or what, but I never completely found it. I wasn't far off. I don't know that it was ever missing completely. If you lose 3-2 you're the one that looks bad, and if you win 3-2 you're the one who looks good. I had a lot (of games) where I was losing 3-2."
Isles coach Scott Gordon
, who was an assistant with Team USA at the Olympics, agreed that the Olympic experience might have been just what Thomas needed to get back on track.
"I know he went into this year with a lot of expectations and wanting to be the guy in Vancouver," Gordon said. "It was a tough situation, but I thought he handled it well. I think mentally he probably benefitted from the two weeks because he's played well and probably refocused himself. What he's accomplished in his career has come from a lot of patience and hard work, and it's good to see him get his game back on."
Gordon said Thomas also benefitted from facing star players practice every day during the Games.
"When you're on the ice with those guys every day and seeing what they can do, he probably came back to his team's practice -- it's the same with our guys coming back -- it's a different pace," he said. "You have that speed and skill coming at you on a daily basis. It's almost like the game has slowed down when you come back to your NHL team. That's not a slight against any NHL team, but you're seeing the best players on the ice every day -- like an All-Star team."
Bruins coach Claude Julien
didn't start Thomas in Boston's first game back after the Olympics, opting to use Rask in what turned out to be a 4-1 home loss to Montreal. But Rask couldn't play Thursday due to a knee problem, and Thomas was superb in a 3-2 shootout win against Toronto that ended the Bruins' 10-game home losing streak. He stole another win Saturday on Long Island, and nearly did it again Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Julien agreed when a reporter suggested after Saturday's game that Thomas had found something during the break.
"You're probably right," he said. "The game he played before this one he was outstanding as well. He's been solid (since the break). As I've mentioned all along, you're not a Vezina Trophy winner and then the next year you're not a good goaltender. It's just about finding his game, and he's finding it at the right time."