The Boston Bruins have won five of their last six games to move close to the top of the Northeast Division. The play of goaltender Tim Thomas is probably the biggest reason why.
Owner of the NHL's best save percentage, Thomas is expected to be in net on Saturday night when Bruins meet the visiting Buffalo Sabres.
Now in his third season as Boston's primary starter, the 34-year-old Thomas - a ninth-round pick by Quebec in 1994 - is having what appears to be a career year. Though his name isn't on the recently released All-Star ballot, Thomas has a 1.85 goals-against average, and NHL-best .944 save percentage.
Thomas has started the last five games during the Bruins' recent surge, going 4-1-0 with a 1.19 GAA with consecutive road shutouts over Edmonton and Vancouver for a .964 save percentage. He stopped 34 shots on Thursday in a 5-2 home win over Toronto to improve to 5-2-2 this season.
"The challenge in those kinds of situations is not to worry about (stats). Just keep playing, and remember the important thing to focus on is two points," said Thomas, who is 3-3-1 with a 2.51 GAA in his last seven starts against the Sabres. "Toronto would have moved ahead of us without those two points. Those were important."
The Bruins (7-3-3) start play with 17 points - two fewer than Buffalo (8-2-3). Backup Manny Fernandez started against the Sabres on Oct. 21, and made 28 saves in the 3-2 shootout loss.
Blake Wheeler recorded his first NHL hat trick against Toronto, and the Bruins rookie has four goals and two assists in a three-game points streak.
Marc Savard leads Boston with 10 assists and 15 points in 2008-09. Since joining the Bruins as a free agent in 2006, the center has six goals and 13 assists in 15 games versus the Sabres.
Phil Kessel had six goals in his first six games for the Bruins, capped with one in last month's loss to the Sabres. He's had only one goal in seven games overall since then, and two in his last 13 versus Buffalo.
The Sabres are 4-0-2 on the road, making them and the Canadiens the only teams yet to lose in regulation away from home this season. Playing at home on Friday, though, Buffalo squandered three one-goal leads before falling 5-4 in overtime to Atlanta.
"They skated well and played simple hockey," Sabres forward Ales Kotalik said. "They got the bounces they needed."
Thomas Vanek scored his league-high 12th goal late in the second period, giving Buffalo a 4-3 lead. He didn't score in last month's loss to the Bruins but has four goals in his last two visits to Boston, including a hat trick on April 5.
Coming off consecutive shutouts of his own, Ryan Miller made 21 saves, but fell to 7-1-2. Miller, who was the league leader with a 1.65 GAA, saw that figure rise to 1.95.
He is 12-3-4 with a 2.46 GAA in 19 career starts against the Bruins. Playing in Boston, however, he's 3-2-2 with a GAA of 3.06.