Thomas enters 'the zone' in shutout of Habs

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Thomas enters 'the zone' in shutout of Habs

MONTREAL Over the last couple of games Tim Thomas has given a firm reminder to any absent-minded hockey followers just how good he can be.

The Bruins goaltender has backstopped the Bruins to a pair of shutouts in his last two games, and stole his first game of the season when he made 32 saves against the Canadiens in a 1-0 victory for the Bruins at the Bell Centre.

Thomas was good throughout, but at his best in the third period when he stopped 14 shots and became Bostons best penalty killer amid a flurry of Habs power-play chances. Guys named Cammalleri, Gionta and Pacioretty were buzzing around all around him, but they were no match for the flawless Bs goaltender.

We played on our heels tonight a little bit, said Claude Julien after watching his Bruins get out-shot by a 32-18 margin. But defensively we werent that bad and Tim Thomas was huge for us making big saves.

It capped off 133:04 of consecutive scoreless ice time for Thomas dating back to a week ago in the third period of a 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils. Guess hes still got it at 37 years old, eh?

Many of us have played with him for quite a few years now, and you get into that rhythm with Thomas where hes stopping pucks and you know where he likes to see the shots from, said Andrew Ference. He looks like hes in that rhythm right now.

There werent any Superman saves with Thomas flying across the crease like a masked superhero, but the 37-year-old was tracking the puck with uncanny precision while plenty of action popped up in front of him.

Thomas was at his best when Montreal sniper Mike Cammalleri tried to find an opening in the third period with the Habs down by just a goal. Thomas stood tall when Scott Gomez attempted to throw a puck into his skates during the first of Benoit Pouliots ill-advised penalties, and he calmly kicked away a Gomez tip of a Cammalleri bomb from the right point.

In the final minute of the third period Thomas swallowed up an Erik Cole shot flipped from the middle slot off a Brian Gionta pass with Max Pacioretty crashing to the front of the net. There was a little bit of luck involved too as Thomas kicked away a bouncing puck in the final seconds with Pacioretty camped out in front of the crease, but unable to control the loose biscuit.

It was all part of Thomas master plan as there were some tough saves sprinkled into his nights work, but he wasnt going to let the Habs see him sweat under his Movember mustache mask. Thomas said after the game hes feeling as good as he has all season, and it looks like hes entering The Zone into which very few goaltenders are allowed admittance.

The Bs goaltender is still fully capable of carrying his hockey club for a stretch at 37 years old, and hes got an offense thats going to get him some ultra-comfortable nights in between the tight, one-goal games.

There were a few through screens that I made look easier than they were, but that was the impression I was trying to give off to Montreal, said Thomas. I wanted to make them feel like they werent close to scoring and it really worked out.

A couple of them ended up in my glove and there was a quick whistle where sometimes they bounce out and it gets a little scrambly. That can get the other team hungry because they feel like theyre close to scoring, but that didnt happen tonight.

With the 32-save shutout in the books, Thomas leads the NHL with three shutouts (hes tied with Jimmy Howard, Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick) and sits second with a 1.77 goals against average and third in the league with a .938 save percentage. He looks every bit like the goaltender that captured the Vezina Trophy, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup for only the second time in NHL history last season, and has only the immortal Brian Elliott and Josh Harding sitting in front of him in the traditional goaltending stat categories.

Its likely that the Habs are sick of seeing this movie with Thomas shutting down a flying Montreal attack and handing the Bruins a victory when players like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand arent up to their normal capabilities. Its the movie that played all last spring to rave reviews in Boston, and it looks there might just be a sequel in the works for Thomas and Co. in Black and Gold.

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.