By Joe Haggerty
RALEIGH, N.C. Tim Thomas had an inkling there might be something special on tap for him this season.
But he kept all of that to himself when his hockey year began.
To just about everyone in the hockey world Thomas was a 36-year-old goaltender coming off major hip surgery, and looking to rebound from a subpar season when it comes to his lofty puck-stopping standards.
Tank had also lost his job to Tuukka Rask as last had unfolded for the Bruins, and admitted there were doubts about what would happen in Boston.
So to say the chips were cast downward for Thomas wouldnt be overstating it.
But anyone that knows Thomas the success story also knows that being stuck in the shadow of doubt is when he does his best work.
Doubt him, paint him into a corner or try to keep him down, and he fights with everything in his considerable power.
So Thomas worked harder than he ever had before last summer to both rehab his surgically repaired hip and to shut plenty of people up.
Then something amazing happened: he became even better than he was during his Vezina season of two years ago. The first of many honors was coming back to his third straight NHL All-Star game.
The All-Star game was a goal of mine, and the season was too. They kind of go hand in hand to a certain extent, said Thomas, who participated in the first ever one-on-one goalie sprint in the fastest skater competition during the SuperSkills challenge on Saturday night. I was thinking about this year all summer. I actually talked to an uncle before the season, and I was looking at the season in boxing terms. I was going into the biggest fight of my life.
Thats the way I went into all summer, and I was training for it like it was the biggest fight of my life. I was rehabbing my hip and training at the same time. I wanted to see how good I could be before it was too late. Thats how I really approached it this summer.
True to Thomas form, he sped right into the biggest fight of his life and knocked adversitys block off with a series of big right-handed paws.
Thomas is now dropping jaws in the hockey world from Sunrise, Florida to Thunder Bay with the greatest season by a goaltending in the modern NHL era through the All-Star break with less than 40 games remaining to be played.
Thomas leads the NHL with a 1.88 goals against average, a .945 save percentage, seven shutouts and is enjoying the best season for a goaltender in the modern era of the NHL a notion confirmed by the fact no goalie has carried a save percentage so high this late into a season since the numbers first starting being recorded officially as a statistic.
He seems to be a shoo-in for his second Vezina Trophy provided he can maintain something close to his current pace in the second half of the year, and theres little doubt hell get Hart Trophy consideration if he can keep things up.
Thomas would be the first Hart Trophy winner since Jose Theodore won it for the Montreal Canadiens in 2001-02, and before that Dominik Hasek the goalie Thomas is most often compared to in style and action between the pipes -- won it in two straight seasons for the Buffalo Sabres from 1996-98.
His fellow All-Star goalies know theyre watching something special, and thats obvious with the collective shaking of the head a reporter receives when the subject of Thomas season is brought up as topic of conversation.
Its amazing really, said Cam Ward. I look at those numbers, and I shake my head and ask how is he doing that? Its a credit to him. Hes obviously having a great year and playing at the top of his game. A .945 save percentage? If he lets in two goals his save percentage is going to drop!
Watching him play, hes very determined and he works hard on every puck. Its really paying off for him.
Thomas had some doubts in his head coming into the season amid trade rumors and surgery, but he simply hasnt looked back once after reclaiming his starting job in the second game against the Phoenix Coyotes in Prague.
Since then he battled through some shaky defensive performances by the Bruins early on when he constantly faced odd-man rushes and breakaways, but things have settled in lately for both goaltender and team.
I know nobody got to witness my lockout year in Finland, but that was close to this. And my first year out of college in Finland was close to this. It wasnt the NHL stage, but if you look at my numbers they were very similar, said Thomas, who was asked how much was him and how much was a result of solid Bruins defense. I wasnt blaming my defense or anything, but the reality is that the new NHL is just harder on goalies than the old NHL.
This year has been a mix: there have been some times when the team has really relied on me and there have been other times when the team played well and has bailed me out on a few occasions. Im just thinking of Pittsburgh when we came back and won 7-4, and came back against them. Especially over the last 2-3 weeks, though, the team has played very solidly in front of me and its taken a lot less energy from me.
With two Vezina Trophies and perhaps a Stanley Cup or two in his future if things go exceedingly well along with a great success story of dogged triumph over the odds theres always the kind of late career run that the Hockey Hall of Fame loves to reward as they did with one of Thomas hockey heroes, Johnny Bauer.
The Stanley Cup is still missing from my resume, said Thomas. The Hall of Fame is still a pipe dream. If it ever happened it would be because I was focusing on the now -- and just playing as hard as I could for as long as I could.
The fact that things like the Hart Trophy, Hall of Fame and Stanley Cup are being mentioned in conversation with Thomas means a couple of different things: Thomas is even better now than he was during his Vezina Trophy season, and nobody should ever doubt him again in a career dominated by doubters continuously proven wrong.