By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com Bruins InsiderFollow @hackswithhaggs
BOSTON Maybe Tampa Bay Lighting coach Guy Boucher was right all along when he threw verbal bouquets Tim Thomas way during the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the end, killing the 37-year-old with kindness didnt work for the Lightning or their cocksure coach. But Tampa Bay did manage to score five goals in four different games during the series, while Boucher assured everyone that Thomas was making miracles happen all the while.
The Vancouver Canucks have taken the opposite tack: They've been anything but kind to Thomas. Particularly his opposite number, Roberto Luongo, who boasted that the only goal Thomas allowed in a 1-0 Vancouver victory in Game 5 would have been "an easy save for me," and then subsequently complained that Thomas hadn't said "one nice thing" about him even though he'd been "pumping Thomas' tires" the whole series.
"I guess I didn't realize it was my job to pump his tires," a bemused Thomas said Sunday. "I guess I have to apologize for that."Thomas gave Luongo more reason to pump his tires Monday, helping make another miracle happen in Game 6 with some big pressure moments in the second and third periods. He stopped 19 shots during Vancouver's attempted comeback and helping the Bruins to a 5-2, series-tying victory, continuing the sterling play that has seen him allow only seven goals in six games in the Finals.
And Luongo? His tires have been flat all series in Boston, and they were again Monday. He allowed three soft goals on eight shots in the first 8 12 minutes -- bringing his total to 15 goals allowed at TD Garden in just about six full periods spread over three games -- and was lifted for the second time in the series.The differences between the goalies couldn't be starker.
How big has he been all series? said Johnny Boychuk when asked about Thomas. What can you say about him? Right now, hes the best goalie in the world.
Thomas shattered the NHL record with a .937 save percentage in his Vezina Trophy-worthy regular season, and has been every bit that big-game goalie in the playoffs while holding down the explosive offenses of Montreal, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Vancouver.
Plus, he holds one of Bostons iconic postseason moments: His stick-blade save on the Lightning's Steve Downie during a key sequence in the conference finals stopped a certain goal in a one-score game.
Thomas has mined deep inside the heads of some of the NHLs best offensive playmakers during his current run, and has transformed them into a bumbling group of defeated skaters shaking their heads and shattering sticks in utter frustration.
Thomas finished with 36 saves Monday and electrified the crowd with a pad edge save on Ryan Kesler during a wraparound attempt in the first period. Then he followed up with a couple of solid stops on Daniel Sedin as an encore.
He wasnt spectacular for the majority of the night, but he was solid, dependable and steady when thats all his team needed him to be.
"He has been in the zone for the entire playoffs, and you can barely count on one hand the bad goals that he's given up during the playoffs," said coach Claude Julien, who didn't note that you'd need more than one hand to count the number of bad goals Luongo has allowed in the games in Boston alone. "That speaks volumes for Thomas. He's come in and decided to focus on his play and nothing else."We all know that teams that normally win the Stanley Cup usually have unbelievable goaltending. We feel like we've got that."
Thomas was also a tone-setter during the pregame warm-up when he hopped on the ice and eschewed the normal customary shooting of a puck into his own net.
Instead Thomas wheeled onto the ice, grabbed a puck and fired it to the Vancouver end of the ice in a show of disrespect and dissatisfaction at the foolish, insecure and immature words Luongo served up in the days leading to Game 6.
It was a sign Thomas was fired up by Luongos dopey verbal stunts.
He started his postgame comments by flatly stating Im not going to go there when asked to assess the Brad Marchand goal Luongo missed right out of the first-period gate.
That little answer to a leading question continued a two-month long string of classy behavior for a puck-stopper at the absolute height of his powers.
Its the best zone Thomas has ever experienced in his NHL career.
This is a totally different level, said Thomas. Youre playing against the best players in the world. This is a whole different ballgame.
Im very happy to be here and Im very happy to have this opportunity. Im going to try and embrace and hold the same attitude that Ive had for the entire playoffs. Hopefully that will get me through one more game to the goal that weve been shooting for all year long.
Luongo, on the other hand, has looked like two different goaltenders in the finals. In Boston he's been a pathetic case of jangled nerves and faulty glove hands, coughing up 15 goals during the three losses. In Vancouver, he's been confident and serene, making normal saves behind a talented Canucks bunch and staring down Thomas in three one-goal victories, two of them by 1-0.
But no matter whether his heart is ticking mightily (in Vancouver) or failing him embarrassingly (in Boston), Luongos personality has been that of a loser.
His emotional frailties have been on display under the harsh spotlight of the NHL national media, and hes alternated somewhere between selfishness, crippling insecurity and foolish, impulsive arrogance. They are the quirks that should prevent him being a winning player.
Luongo has been slightly above average at home in the Cup Finals, and that's being generous. On the other hand, his poor play put his team in holes it couldn't escape in Boston -- the Canucks actually started Game 6 very well, only to look up at the 8 12-minute mark and find themselves trailing by three goals -- which is why it was strange he was searchingfor people to pump his tires and acknowledge his greatness. The truth is, there is nothing "great" about the Vancouver goaltender and that's why Vancouver shouldn't win.
Thomas has seized the opportunity -- along with the rest of the Bruins -- to climb inside Luongos gelled-up head and manipulate his insecurities like a steel pedal guitar. Thomas has put the Canucks on notice they will never pull away from the Bruins during any game in this series.
Its a tale of two goaltenders, and it reveals everything one should need to know when opinion-making about the Conn Smythe Trophy rolls around. Luongo blew any shot he had at the award with a grotesque performance in Game 6. Monday night's game revealed the skimpily thin line between "good" and "bad" Bobby Lou that Vancouver constantly toes.
Luongo didn't criticize Thomas' goaltending after Game 6 as he had after Game 5. Nor should he. Thomas has a 1.33 goals against average in the Finals, along with a .962 save percentage.
"You can't hang your head and feel sorry for yourself, said Luongo, while looking on the ice like a player that was hanging his head while the Bruins fans chanted Loouuongooo long into the third period.
"That's the worst thing I could do . . . I had a good feeling all day. Before the series started, I said I enjoyed playing in this building. Youve just got to move on right now. Got to believe in myself, right?"
When it comes to Thomas and the Bruins, thereare no internalquestions. The B's goalie has movedway beyond that line with death-defying saves and Game 7 wins, and both goalie and hockey team crossed over that trustthreshold during Game 3 of the series against the Canadiens. Thomas had surrendered a pair of five-hole goals early in the game at the Bell Centre, but the 37-year-old success story rebounded once his team gained a lead.From there Thomas has simplygone on to have the best postseason of his career. Just NHL records and boring stereotypes about goaltenders in the new NHL getting smashed to bits in the process.
It looks like an elite goalie can take you to hockey's promised land, after all.
Hes played well all year, said a marveling David Krejci of his All-World goaltender. We need him to play like that for one more game.
Thomas and Luongo's matchup has opened up for a fascinating side-by-side look at
two very opposite sides of the same goaltending coin. One is an impetuous, unsure goalie still trying to find his way when the pressure mounts. The other, a wizened veteran enjoying the best year of a fascinating career that deserves Stanley Cup glory if there is hockey justice in the world.