By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON To understand the upcoming battle between 37-year-old Tim Thomas and 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson in the Eastern Conference finals, the best place to turn is the past.
The two goalies have climbed, scratched and clawed their way to the top of their profession by defying the odds in their own respective ways. It makes them the most fascinating matchup in the upcoming series between the Bruins and the Lightning.
Thomas was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques 217th overall in 1994, but never got much of a shot in that organization. Roloson went undrafted before hitting Hockey East with UMass-Lowell in 1990 as a 21-year-old. Both have always shown an unwillingness to surrender to self-doubt or despair when things werent going well . . . which was most of the time early in their careers.
When a person has that strong of a will theyre going to find their place, and Thomas has done that, said University of Vermont goalie coach Terry Lovelette, who worked with Thomas at UVM. Its really impressive to see how long he held with it, how hard he worked for it and how absolutely wonderful it is that hes having the success hes experiencing right now. Because he certainly deserved it.
Brian DAccord was in charge of the Bruins' goaltenders during the Robbie Ftorek coaching era in Boston, and he vividly remembers his first contact with Thomas. It was 2001-02, and Thomas was in camp with fellow goalies Byron Dafoe and John Grahame.
Thomas outplayed both of them in the exhibition season, but it didn't matter. They had guaranteed contracts; Thomas didn't. Plus, the Bruins felt their goalie of the future -- Andrew Raycroft -- was waiting in the wings.
But when he got the inevitable word that he was being sent to Providence, Thomas didn't take the news without a fight.
It came down to the last day of camp," recalled D'Accord. "Dafoe was on the books for 3.1 million and Grahame was on the books for about 730,000, so there really wasnt any chance for Thomas to make the team even though he played really well. I used to go on the ice 40 minutes early with the goalies. Then-general manager Mike OConnell and Robbie Ftorek were up in the office giving guys the bad news, and they hadnt got to Timmy yet.
I walk into the locker room and theres Tim Thomas, half-dressed. I know that hes supposed to be cut and sent to Providence because he wasnt on the roster for practice. I didnt know what to do, so I asked him if hed checked in with anybody that morning.
"He looked at me and said, Hey, if they want to cut me then they can drag my ass off the ice.
"So I said Okay, lets go then! They put him on the roster for practice and then let him go afterwards.
Roloson has a similar story. When he was playing Junior 'B' hockey in Ontario, the only college team interested in him was Division III Plattsburgh State.
UMass-Lowell goaltending coach Mike Geragosian happened onto Roloson after losing a goalie prospect named Jeff Levy to the University of New Hampshire. Geragosian and then-Lowell assistant coach Blais McDonald traveled to a small Ontario town just north of Niagara Falls to watch Roloson, who was in his final year of junior eligibility.
After the first period, Geragosian -- now the goaltending coach at Boston University -- slipped a note to McDonald and told him not to open it until after the game.
Roloson stood on his head with a 54-save performance that forced the game into overtime. But when his team lost, he shattered his stick over the crossbar in a fit of pique.
Thats when I told Blais he could open up the note, said Geragosian.
The note read: If Roloson makes 50-something saves and snaps his stick over the crossbar in overtime, then this is our guy.
"So we decided then and there this kid was coming to Lowell," said Geragosian.
That consolation prize turned into an All-American goaltender.
You could see he had that willingness to work and that desire to compete, and the rest was history once he got there," said Geragosian. "He just kept getting better and better as he gained confidence and determination at Lowell.
Still, the road to this year's Eastern Conference semifinals wasn't smooth and straight for either of them. Tampa Bay is Roloson's sixth organization, and he didn't establish himself as a No. 1 NHL goalie until he was in his 30s. Thomas spent parts of four seasons playing in Europe, and was with the P-Bruins as recently as 2005-06 (at the age of 31). He's been Boston's top goalie since 2006-07, but many were clamoring for Tuukka Rask to get his job last season.
But both perservered. Its that unwillingness to surrender and unflagging belief in themselves that have pushed both Thomas and Roloson onward and upward in their careers, and its that little flicker of fire that keeps them going now at their advanced ages.
Fast-forward to the present.
Roloson arrived in Tampa Bay in the middle of the season after the Lightning had floundered badly with a combustible Mike SmithDan Ellis goaltending tandem.
Roloson has stabilized their team." said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "I think that is a pretty fair statement to make . . . He has brought some stability to that hockey club, and he has got some experience.
"He led his Edmonton team to the finals in 2005-06, although he got injured in that last series. (Roloson was hurt in the first game and didn't play again as the Oilers fell to the Carolina Hurricanes.) But hes certainly capable of doing that again.
As for Thomas, his Vezina-caliber regular season has continued into the postseason.
The Bruins have the No. 1 goaltender in the league, and I think in the end we have the same enigma as everybody else, said Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher. Nobody can beat this guy. Were no different. Its going to be extremely difficult. Hes shown he was the best in the regular season, and now in the playoffs hes shown he same. So theres a consistency there. I dont plan on him giving us any freebies whatsoever.
In the playoffs, there hasn't been a dime's worth of difference between them. They have identical 8-3 won-loss records. Roloson leads all playoff goalies with a .941 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average; Thomas is second in both categories at .937 and 2.03.
The pictures -- both this season and over their careers -- are so similar that Thomas feels a kinship for Roloson . . . even though their paths have never crossed more than a few games playedagainst each otherand they've neverspoken.
"The reason Roloson has been able to have an NHL career for so long is that hes been able to adapt his game to the way the NHL game has developed, said Thomas. Im along those similar lines. We both learned real technique at an older age, and for him maybe it was even at a little bit of an older age than I did.
For a while there he developed himself into a real butterfly goalie when thats what the NHL called for, and now its opened back up and hes had to adapt. Hes been able to do that, too.
Its been a long, long road for both. But that road may just deliver one of them to a Stanley Cup championship.