Tim Thomas did just about everything a goaltender could do in one season. He won the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in the NHL; he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP; and he won the biggest prize of them all: the Stanley Cup.
Thomas has had an adventurous career that will make for a good novel one day. At the age of 37, winning the Cup – with a shutout in Game 7, no less – was the perfect ending to one of the best goaltending seasons in NHL history.
The highly-respected and well-spoken backstop etched his name into Boston Bruins lore with his great performances throughout a Stanley Cup run that ended a 39-year drought for the Original Six franchise. His play helped the city go into a frenzy.
In 25 playoff games, Thomas posted a 1.98 goals-against average and four shutouts, carrying his team for a good portion of the time. He further rose to the occasion in the Cup final, limiting the high-powered Vancouver Canucks to eight goals in seven games. In the series he had a .967 save percentage and two shutouts en route to winning Lord Stanley.
“It was a sweet moment,” said Thomas of lifting the Stanley Cup. “It takes so much energy to win that thing, that I don’t think at the time you can totally appreciate it.”
As a college teammate at University of Vermont, and having played against him in the conference final, Lightning forward Martin St. Louis was impressed with Thomas’ play against Vancouver.
“It’s no disrespect to Timmy; I thought he played well against us,” St. Louis said. “But I thought he played unbelievable against Vancouver. He had another notch in his game. He was still a big factor in our series, but somehow we were able to score more goals against him than Vancouver did. He brought it in every game against Vancouver and stood on his head.”
The Bruins netminder became just the second goalie in league history to win the Vezina, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in the same season. The first to do it was Bernie Parent, who did for the Philadelphia Flyers in both 1974 and 1975.
“It’s amazing that he did it two years in a row,” Thomas said of Parent after winning the Vezina Trophy last month. “I would love to be able to accomplish something like that, but so many things have to fall into place. I bet you Bernie would agree, it takes a unique set of circumstances to be able to win that like he did two years in a row and it’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Not only did Thomas win all three of those trophies in one season, but he also broke Dominik Hasek’s all-time save percentage with a staggering .938 mark. Hasek, a future Hall of Famer and similarly unorthodox between the pipes, was someone Thomas looked up to when he was younger.
“He was a goalie I started watching in my college years,” said Thomas, “Watching his game, not trying to imitate his game, but taking at least one or two aspects that I saw him use and trying to make them work in my game. Actually one of ‘em worked for a while but it hasn’t worked for me in a few years so I don’t use them anymore.”
Thomas’ story is well-documented. Before arriving to the NHL, the 1994 9th round pick of the Quebec Nordiques played in five different leagues on eight different teams over a span of eight years. His latest adversity was having to overcome off-season hip surgery last summer. He admitted that he didn’t really know what to expect after the surgery.
“Coming out of the hip surgery I wasn’t sure how it was going to be,” Thomas said. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was better, and it still had to do with the rehabilitation work but right away within the next two days after the surgery I was like, ‘Oh, freedom!’ That’s what it felt like.
“Last summer, going through the work that it took to get myself to the level that I wanted to be at, that was a lot of hard work. I was doing three workouts a day and I was pretty much exhausted all the time, because that’s what I knew it would take. But it’s all paid off.”
Has it ever.
In 57 regular season games, the Flint, Mich., native racked up 35 wins, a miniscule 2.00 goals-against and nine shutouts. Not to mention the aforementioned single-season record .938 save percentage.
Many believed Thomas would never get back to his top-notch form from the 2008-09 season, the year he won his first Vezina. Somehow, he managed to top it.
“We know without Tim it would have been so much harder, or not even possible, to win the ultimate prize,” Captain Zdeno Chara said. “He’s been working really hard and been very focused since training camp. He continued to get better and better. We all know that he’s so competitive and he just wants to win.”
One thing that carried over after the surgery (that won’t ever leave) was Thomas’ competitive nature. When you watch him play, you wonder sometimes how made he this save or that save. But it’s his competitiveness that goes a long way in stopping those pucks.
“He never gives up on anything,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said. “You think you have him beat and his competitive nature takes over.
“He doesn’t play the most orthodox style, but he challenges you. If you’re going to beat him, you’re going to have to beat him with a good, clean shot. He challenges every single player and he has that confidence. He makes amazing saves and never quits on pucks. That’s why he’s got to where his career is right now.”
St. Louis added, “It’s almost like he knows how good he has to play to beat somebody. I’m not saying he let up against us, but it always looks like he’s in control. He knows how hard he has to push. Obviously he left nothing (on the ice) in the Cup final.”
Thomas probably would have never made it to the NHL if it weren’t for his will to succeed and never-say-die attitude. Bouncing around from league-to-league and country-to-country, and not becoming a full-time NHLer until he was 31 years old, it could have been easy for him to throw in the towel and move on in life. He didn’t. Two Vezina Trophies and a Stanley Cup later, Thomas has put together quite an NHL career.
We saw some of that compete level in the Cup final when he engaged in physical play with Canucks players, namely Alex Burrows and Henrik Sedin. But it is that attitude and style that has helped him flourish over the last few years.
When asked where he gets his competitiveness from, Thomas said, “I think it’s something that was instilled in me somehow as a child. I grew up believing in the American way and the American way is if you set your mind on something and work hard at it, you can reach it.”
Thomas’ record-breaking season was one of the best a goaltender has ever put together in the NHL. Stamkos, a present and future lethal goal-scorer, agreed.
“He was the best goaltender in this league by far,” he said. “I think we caught him on a couple bad games and we were fortunate that way. In some of our wins he wasn’t on top of his game, but in Game 7 he shut us out. And then you look at what he did in the finals.
“He’s come so far in his career. I was definitely happy to see him win after what he’s gone through and all of the work to get to where he is. He’s a great goalie and he proved it this year.”
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