Haggerty: Thomas needs to be better for Bruins to thrive

Haggerty: Thomas needs to be better for Bruins to thrive
March 5, 2012, 6:00 am
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NEW YORK A couple of things were gleaned about the current state of the Boston Bruins against the New York Rangers with injuries gnawing away at their depth and tearing the team fabric.

They just might not be as good as the Blueshirts without Nathan Horton, Rich Peverley, Andrew Ference, Daniel Paille and the wave-upon-wave depth that symbolized their run through the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.

The undermanned Bruins will have a difficult time playing much better than they did on Sunday while outshooting the Rangers by a 33-17 margin, beating them physically with Milan Lucic providing the punctuation mark as he pounded Brandon Prust during a gnarly fight in front of the Boston bench in the first period and coming back twice against a Rangers team that simply doesnt let that happen.

But the Bruins still fell to the Rags by a 4-3 score at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon, and much of it came down to Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas.

Thats the same Thomas that carried the Bruins to the Cup last season as their most important piece. Thats the same Thomas that will be expected to rise to the occasion for the final 18 games with Tuukka Rask expected to be shelved when they announce his injury status on Monday in Toronto.

Its the same Thomas that is 11-9 with a .911 save percentage and goals against average thats getting a little too close to the 3.00 mark since the beginning of January.

Those are extremely un-Thomas-like numbers and its been going on for far too long this season.

Claude Julien wouldnt comment on the goaltending following Sunday afternoons loss to the Blueshirts, but did talk about a couple of tough goals his team had to overcome.

Thats hockey code for soft goals the 37-year-old netminder needs to stop when the Bruins are an undermanned, outgunned group looking to scrape by with a less-than-perfect roster.

It was just one of those nights, said Thomas. We battled back and actually had a game there. But what can go wrong will right now. Were just in one of those modes.

They play a relatively defensive style with a lot of shot-blocking and rely on their goaltender. They wait to be opportunistic. Were running into a lot of teams that are playing the exact same way against us actually.

Thomas was asked if hes ready to take on the full workload with Rask seemingly out of the picture.

Yeahyup. Especially if we can play in an arena that has lights, said Thomas with a smile on his face in a reference to the dark theatre lighting at Madison Square Garden.

So theres a bright spot: at least Thomas still has his sense of humor.

But Thomas was just okay against the Rangers and thats a problem.

The Bruins system is only successful at the highest level when their goaltending is approaching greatness. That probably wasnt the case in the first period when Ruslan Fedetenko slipped a tipped puck past Thomas and Carl Hagelin threw a puck at the net that bounced off Greg Zanon before it landed behind the Bs goaltender.

It was definite in the third when Derek Stepan snapped a wrister over Thomas glove hand 39 seconds after the Bs had tied the game, and essentially Bostons chances for a win.

Thomas said after the game he was screened though he couldnt say whether it was a Rangers or Bruins player and that he never saw the Stepan shot.

It was difficult to see where the screen actually came from, but either way Thomas must find a way to knock that puck down if the Bruins are going to come out of the 24-game .500 funk.

I didnt see it. What are you going to do? said Thomas. Id like to have saved it. Ultimately thats my job to stop the puck. It sucks. Thats just the way it worked out. Everything was a screen or a weird, goofy bounce. It wasnt a normal game for a goaltender on my end. Lets put it that way.

Bad bounces and puck luck can certainly be accounted for in any hockey game, but any losing goaltender that allows four goals on 17 shots in a game that his own team outshot the opposition 2-1 certainly needs to raise their hand and accept responsibility.

Thomas has been better as of late following some struggles both before and after the White House visit in January, but he needs to truly raise his game with the Bruins riding him the rest of the way.

Even if Mike Hutchinson, or whichever backup goaltender the Bs ultimately decide on, gets four of the remaining 18 games for the Bruins, that will mean Thomas has played 21 of the final 26 games to close the season including five sets of back-to-back games.

The challenge facing Thomas and the Bruins is not for the faint of heart.

Thomas will need to be dominant while assisting the Bruins out of their nearly two-month slump and hell somehow need to conserve energy for a playoff run Boston hopes will be long-lasting.

Did we mention that Thomas will be 38 years old during the playoffs and that he played a whopping 82 games during the regular season and playoffs last year?

The Bruins had better hope the slow glove hand and goofy goals allowed to the Rangers werent early signs that the high-energy Thomas is already battling fatigue.

He has a history of wearing down when asked to shoulder too much of the game workload and that made his partnership with Rask ideal for both parties. Now Thomas appears to be on his own with as much playing time as he can handle.

The question in the end will be whether he can actually endure the sheer number of games that will be forced on him with the Bruins truly becoming a one-man goaltending gang from here on in.