Haggerty: Thomas on his way to another Vezina

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Haggerty: Thomas on his way to another Vezina

By JoeHaggerty
CSNNE.com

BOSTON Tim Thomas always knows the odds and the percentages when hes on the ice measuring angles and making mental calculations about what certain players will do to attack him.

He knows what kinds of sticks each player uses, what the tendencies are of the best players in the other uniforms, and the best ways to keep the puck out of the back of his own net. Thats why he leads the NHL with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage, and is well on the way to his second Vezina Trophy in the last three seasons with the Bruins.

Thomas also surely knows that there have been only three Vezina Trophy winners who have gone on to win the Stanley Cup since the award criteria changed prior to the 1982 season (Billy Smith, Grant Fuhr, Martin Brodeur), but that would only add fuel to the fire for the 36-year-old goalie. Hell do his best to be fourth once the playoffs begin in a few weeks, because Thomas essentially locked down the playoff starter role -- and the Vezina -- with a 32-save effort in a 3-0 win over the Blackhawks on Tuesday night at TD Garden.

Thomas said his head is basically empty of anything but the task at hand when he heads out onto the ice, and thats an ideal spot to be in.

Oh yes, its scary sometimes. Im in one of those good places and now the challenge is to keep it there. We really werent scrambly, and position-wise we were very good tonight said Thomas, gleeful at having a clutter-free brain at this point in the season. The shutouts are not that big of a deal. Obviously theyre nice. But its more about the win.

"Having said that, shutouts are nice, Im obviously pulling for them towards the end of the game if I can. But I mean, I think guys should be focused on winning, making sure that we win rather than the shutout.

Thomas was excellent in the first half of the game in what was shaping up as a goaltender battle with Chicago rookie Corey Crawford. He stopped Marian Hossa in the first period on a backhanded bid near the post, and somehow kicked away a Jonathan Toews chance in the second period.

It didnt matter whether it was a point-blank rebound chance or a steamed shot from the point outside the hash marks, Thomas stopped them all the same and made it a personal four-game winning streak.

Plenty of credit goes to the defense in front of Thomas; the B's defense corps has stepped it up in the shot-blocking department, is paying close attention to not screening the goaltender, and is clearing pucks in front of the net. Perhaps even more valuable than that, the defensemen are bumping offensive attackers away from their happy spots on the offense. They made a clinic out of it Tuesday night, keeping Patrick Kane to a quiet three shots.

I played with Kane a few times and played with him at the Olympics, said Thomas. Hes got a really good shot, but he only takes it if hes in the spots where he feels comfortable taking them. We wouldnt let him get into those spots tonight. He floated a couple out toward the net and past it, but he wasnt taking his shot to score because we were keeping him away from the net.

But beyond the defensive efforts and the team playing well in front of him, Thomas has been something special to behold since the beginning of the season. Mark Recchi said he first noticed something special from that first night in Liberec when the Bruins played their exhibition game against the Czech Republic and the 36-year-old has never stopped since that point.

While it was apparent that Thomas had a brief spell of fatigue along with the rest of his teammates in portions of January and February, he is back on his game with only six starts to go until the postseason.

Dont even bother to tell coach Claude Julien that Thomas looked tired at any point, however. Hes not having it, and a perusal of the numbers makes it difficult to argue with him.

You know its amazing, hes been great for us all year and then the minute he only becomes good, everybody talks about him being in a slump, said Julien. I dont think hes ever been bad for us this year. Hes been good sometimes, but hes been great most of the time.

But giving him a little bit of rest and then he fine-tuned himself again, and after a little bit of rest hes back to where he was most of the year. So that was our plan and that was part of it.

Thomas is 4-0-0 against the Devils, Canadiens, Flyers and Blackhawks all with world class offensive players ready to inflict major damage on a lesser goaltender and has a 0.50 goals against average and a .983 save percentage over those four games.

Thursdays shutout of the Blackhawks was Thomas' career-best ninth of the season, and the second within the last week.

Hes been playing like we need him to be playing, and thats why hes a Vezina Trophy candidate again this season, said Johnny Boychuk. Hes been making key saves at the right times, and thats why were in some of these games. Thats what good teams have: a really top level goaltender.

Thomas knows that many of the recent Stanley Cup champions havent boasted elite goaltending, though Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward are all pretty accomplished netminders in their own right. But once again the odds are stacked against Thomas as he attempts to win both the Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup and perhaps even the Hart Trophy for good measure in the same memorable season.

But the odds dont bother Thomas a whit. If they did, he wouldnt be defying all of them in the first place with his career in Boston.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him. 

Blidh plans to bring some energy to Bruins after call-up

Blidh plans to bring some energy to Bruins after call-up

BRIGHTON, Mass. – Anton Blidh plans on keeping things pretty straightforward on his first call-up to the NHL. 

The former sixth-round pick of the Bruins has earned his stripes at the AHL level with Providence over the last couple of seasons, and comes to Boston as a gritty, energy forward capable of stirring things up in otherwise sleepy games. There’s also a bit of offensive upside for a fourth line-type player with five goals and nine points with 22 penalty minutes and a plus-eight rating in 19 games for the P-Bruins this season. 

It remains to be seen if the Blidh call-up means that the Bruins intend to scratch a player or that somebody is questionable for Saturday afternoon’s game in Buffalo, but Patrice Bergeron did miss Friday’s practice without any real defined reason for his absence. The 21-year-old Swede said he plans to play to his strengths if he gets into the lineup for the Black and Gold, and that could mean getting under the skin of his Sabres opponents. 

“It’s my first time called up, so I’m happy,” said Blidh, who was asked what he'll bring if he gets into the lineup. “I’ll just play simple and play my own game: be hard on the puck and play with some energy. I worked hard [in Providence] and then I got some confidence. I’m not a goal-scorer, but I scored a couple of goals and got some confidence.”

Claude Julien hasn’t been able to catch up Blidh’s work since the season got started, but was pleased by the youngster’s progress in training camp, where he earned notice for his feisty, physical play on a line with Noel Acciari. 

“They said he’s playing well, so they brought him up. We’ll get to see him, hopefully tomorrow,” said Julien. “I didn’t hear a ton of fine details aside from him being a guy that was certainly playing with a lot of energy. I didn’t mind him in training camp either. He works really hard and competes hard, and we could use that.”

That would certainly be the case after watching the Bruins go through the motions for long stretches Thursday night against Carolina before essentially stealing a game that they didn’t deserve to win.