By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON Tim Thomas has been in plenty of hockey dog fights over the course of his long and winding hockeycareer, and the 37-year-oldknows when something needs to be said.
Its usually not the goaltender who steps up and makes his voice heard during a definitive playoff moment, but Thomas isnt your average goalie and he certainly isnt having your average goaltending season. He's probably the single biggest reason the Bruins were poised to dust off the Flyers in four games on Friday, and he had something to say in the home dressing room between the second and third periods with the Bruins and Flyers locked ina 1-1 hockey game with Philly resisting their golf course fate.
The Bs goalie had a simple message for his teammates: Third periods are ours.
Thomas watched all season as the Bruins were the embodiment of heart, determination and guts in their third-period performances, outscoring opponents by a 94-57 margin in the most important 20 minutes when it comes to closing outa hockey game.
The plus-37 goal differential in the third period was the best mark for any NHL team in any period during the entire regular season, and it's a Stanley Cup-level type of statistic. Long before other stats showed the Black and Gold to be the real deal, that should have been a number that clued everybody in to what was going on.
I just said third periods are ours, to reinforce and remind guys that that's the way it's been all year, to hopefully help their confidence, said Thomas. The reason we had success was playing one game at a time: one game at a time, one period at a time and one shift at a time. Thats how we were breaking it down. Win or lose tonight, thats what the keys would have been.
Just as they normally do, the Bruins owned the third period against the Flyers and snaredfour goals in the final 20 minutes as they posted a 5-1 victory in Game 4 that capped off the sweep and put them into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since theglorious BourqueNeely era in1992.
They broke through the frustrations of recent playoff runs, all of which ended in the conference semifinals. Of losing Game 7 in overtime at home against Carolina in 2009, and -- gasp -- blowing a 3-0 series lead, and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 at home, against the Flyers last year. Those merely became a painfulpreamble to the Bruins finally busting through.
I think guys are gaining some experience from some of those series from years past that they carried into this year, said team president Cam Neely -- a member of that 1992 team -- following the victory, while also giving credit to the coaching staff for keeping the team calm through emotional playoff waters. It showed that if you go down 2-0 in the first series as the Bruins did against the Montreal, they can come back and win that . . . Guys learned from last year. History is great if you can learn from it."
Johnny Boychuk ripped things open less than three minutes into the third period when he took a pass from Michael Ryder and, from the right point, hammered the puck on edge for a dipping, floating, knuckling score that eluded Flyers rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
From there, the Bruins put a stranglehold on the game . . . and the series.
I think thats one thing that the guys really have confidence in. They know that in the third period weve been a pretty strong team this year, said coach Claude Julien. So, going into the third, were a confident group and we believe in our ability to win hockey games and certainly thats played a big role here in the playoffs, knowing that we can do that."
And now it's on to the Eastern Conference finals, a place the Bruins haven't been in 19 years . . . when Neely, Ray Bourque and company were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The ageless Mark Recchi was around then -- in fact, he played for the Penguins that year -- but, obviously, all his current teammates were doing nothing more than dreaming NHL dreams.
Zdeno Chara said he was in Slovakia probably in his basement lifting weights during the spring of 1992. Boychuk said he was likelyin his home neighborhood in Edmonton playing hockey street hockey and pretending he was Bourque. On Friday night Boychuk was giving theageless Bourque fist pump on the ice after potting the game-winner in the third period.A six year-old Patrice Bergeron was no doubt playing street hockey as well and fantasizing of someday becoming a modern-day Joe Sakic while growing up a gigantic Quebec Nordiques fan.
All of which speaks to what a long timecoming this return to the finals is for the Bruins. That -- and the slaying of the ghosts of last year's epic collapse at the hands of the Flyers -- is what the B's are celebrating now.
The motivation to move past the Tampa Bay Lightning into the Stanley Cup Finals will certainly be there by Monday.
Its a big relief I think for all of us. We put a lot of work into this year and been through a lot, said Recchi, who 12 months ago sat stunned, emotional and speechless in front of his locer after the Bruins dropped Game 7 to the Flyers. A lot of guys have been through a lot together the last couple of years, so to finally get over the hump and get to that next level is a great feeling for all us.
Where once there was insecurity and nervousness during those final few minutes of playoff hockey, the Bruins now exude confidence during big games and more importantly, feel like theyre due ownership rights in the third period whenever any hockey team has the audacity to challenge them.
Where once there was the biggest collapse in the modern-day NHL by the Bruins, now theres a Bs team thats been through the fire and is ready to see just how far their talent can take them.