By Joe Haggerty
MONTREAL There were a lot of heavy criticisms being weighed at Tim Thomas heading into Monday nights Game 3 at the Bell Centre home of the Canadiens.
Some were fair and some werent, but he answered all of them with a third period for the ages.
Thomas has obviously proven everything he needs to during the regular season, but hes always had a difficult time recreating his uniquely magical brand of goaltending during the playoffs. The 37-year-old had never really stolen a playoff game for the Bruins in his four years of playoffs, and hes only captured one series victory in four tries at the Stanley Cup playoffs.
His save percentage after two games against Montreal sat at .891. He set the NHL record for that statistic during the regular season so something was clearly amiss.
With questions swirling about his game after a couple of juicy rebounds surrendered in Bostons Game 2 loss, Thomas looked to be on something close to a mission while standing on his head for 14 saves in a 4-2 win for Boston at the Bell Centre Monday night.
I was happy to get the win. The team needed it . . . I needed it, said Thomas, with an allusion toward the less-than-stellar way the series began for Bostons elite goaltender.
That it all came after Thomas had fallen victim to a pair of five-hole scores from Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec in the final two periods was a tribute to the Boston goaltenders determination and experience in dusting off miscues.
It seems big-game experience combined with his still-sharp goaltending skills are finally marrying into a formidable postseason goaltender, serving notice to Montreal attackers theres no discernible difference between regular-season Timmy and playoff Timmy.
Either way, thou shalt not pass with the puck.
Thats Timmy, said Patrice Bergeron. You look at his career and what hes been through, and where hes at now. Hes amazing. You cant question his mental stuff. Hes a battler and hes a competitor. Im just happy to have him with us.
The Thomas highlight stop with four minutes remaining in the third period on Kostitsyn from the edge of right face-off dot was equal parts aggressive and confident. It was a statement that the Canadiens werent going to tie things up easily with a 3-2 score on the board.
Mike Cammalleri set Kostitsyn up with a nifty little drop-back pass, and the Belarus native was turned away by Thomas without any of the superfluous movement that can sometimes creep into the goalie's game. Thomas simply kept telling himself how good it was going to feel once hed mastered the chaos and chances around the net in the third period. He came through with save after save after glorious save.
Call it the Timmy happy place, if you must.
It was nerve-wracking, but it also felt great, said Thomas when asked what it was like to battle through the chaos while Montreal leveled 15 shots at him. It was great to have the lead and be battling from that side of it. You just kept thinking its going to feel good if you end up on top.
After smothering Kostitsyns sniper bid, Thomas pounced on a point-blank chance from Scott Gomez directly on the doorstep and fought off the underachieving Montreal forward for the puck before earning a play stoppage.
It was a little bit street hockey-style at times, but it worked as the Canadiens flooded him with shots in a third period. Montreal outshoot the Bruins by a 15-6 margin, but Thomas never gave an inch after his two miscues.
Steeled by the failures just 48 hours prior on his own home ice, Thomas felt like he had a lot to prove to his teammates, the fans and most importantly to himself after hovering somewhere between average and rented goalie in the first few games of the series.
In the third period Thomas ascended from rented goalie to Vezina Special, and the Habs have to be concerned the notoriously streaky Boston goalie is about to rip off one of his patented otherworldly stretches.
Nothing can get by him when Thomas is feeling it and he seemed to be feeling something in the final 15 minutes.
He made some big saves, said Claude Julien. The fact that he could do that shows a lot of character because theres no doubt hed like to have those two goals back. But he could have had negative thoughts and not been sharp, but doing what he did meant he wanted to redeem himself.
Those saves were huge because if he didnt make them then youre looking at a tie game in their building.
Thomas has learned a lot over his nearly 850 career hockey games in the ECAC, ECHL, Finland, Sweden, the AHL, IHL, NHL, and all points in between and perhaps the biggest lesson is its not about how you start, its about how you finish. And Thomas punched an exclamation point in the final period with the way he controlled everything between his pipes while giving his team some life.
The real Thomas and the rest of the sleeping Bruins have finally woken up, and now the playoff series is about to get very interesting.