By Michael Felger
When Canadiens forward Brian Gionta broke down the right wing five minutes into the second overtime on Saturday night at the Garden, the stakes couldn't have been much higher -- either for the Bruins or the man Gionta would ultimately try to beat for the game-winner.
The Bruins' latest blood-duel with Montreal was knotted at two games apiece and the next goal would not only shift the balance of the series, but help determine the future of many of the players on the B's bench, as well as those behind it.
Face it. Jobs and reputations are on the line for the Bruins this postseason. For Claude Julien, another early exit will certainly mean an exit from Boston. For the players, the questions are more subtle, but important nonetheless.
Who, for example, is Tim Thomas? We know he's been one of the best regular-season goalies in the NHL for about four years. He's about to win his second Vezina Trophy and just set a record for regular-season save percentage.
Yet his postseason career has been undistinguished. Through three playoff series -- spanning one round in 2008, which he lost, and two in 2009, which he split -- Thomas' play has been good but rarely great. Yes, he hasn't cost the Bruins many games. But he hasn't won them many, either. He's been . . . fine. And that's about it. His up-and-down play over the first four games against Montreal only encapsulated his postseason career.
So as Gionta bore down the right slot, the question hung in the air: Had he ever, truly stolen a playoff game for the Bruins? If he had, it was hard to recall.
Then Travis Moen's pass found Gionta's stick and Thomas finally, unequivocally, answered.
Thomas' sprawling save on the Gionta one-timer was perhaps his finest moment as a member of the Boston Bruins, capping what had to be the most important and clutch performance of his NHL career (44 saves). Above all, it helped give the Bruins a 3-2 series lead over the Canadiens and put them one step closer to the second round, where jobs and reputations will be on the line all over again.
And that's what makes the real takeaway from Thomas' brilliant performance on Saturday the future, not the past.
What if that game is the one that "breaks the seal" for Thomas? What if it becomes a regular occurrence and not just an aberration?
In other words, what if Thomas becomes that guy?
Then you'd have to look at the Bruins differently, wouldn't you?
So that's the question I'm asking heading into Tuesday's Game 6 in Montreal.
What's it going to be, Tim: More games like that? Or one-and-done?
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