BOSTON -- @font-face font-family: "Times New Roman";p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; table.MsoNormalTable font-size: 10pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; div.Section1 page: Section1; This was a playoff game for the Devils.
Not literally, maybe, but if New Jersey wanted to continue its late-season surge intothe postseason, it was going to have to turn on an impressive winning streak,beginning with a victory over the Bruins on Tuesday night at the TD Garden.
The B's on the other hand, hadn't clinched anything yet entering Tuesdaynight. But barring a major disaster in the final 11 games of the regularseason, it's all but guaranteed the Bruins will make the playoffs.
Still, they found themselves in a bit of a rut, and it was time for Tim Thomasand the B's defense to play like the stingy defense they know they can be.
It had the feel of the postseason. Thomas vs. Martin Brodeur. Claude Julien vs.the organization that canned him a week before the 2007 playoffs, whenthe Devils were in first place in their division.
Everyone thought this was going to be a defensive battle. Then the Devilsrattled off 16 shots in the first 20 minutes, dominating the play in theBruins' zone, while the B's only had six shots in the first period.
But Boston went into the intermission tied 1-1 with New Jersey. And the B'sescaped the game with a surge in the final 40 minutes, scoring three moregoals, and defeating the Devils 4-1.
Milan Lucic's game-winning assist, followed by his nail-in-the-coffin 30th goalof the season late in the third, stole the spotlight on Tuesday night's gutsywin over a New Jersey team that, regardless of its record, would be one of themore dangerous opponents in the East if it makes the playoffs.
But what can't be overlooked is the play of Thomas, who made 30 saves whileearning his 30th win of the season.
Not too bad for the 36-year-old goaltender who, a year ago at this time, had lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask.
Thomas is on his way to earning a second Vezina Trophy in three years, buteverybody in Boston -- especially the Bruins faithful -- knows that it's notabout regular-season performances. It's about what happens in the postseason.For regular season Vezina trophies might as well be thrown out the window themoment that puck is dropped in Game One of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Just ask Thomas, who saw his Bruins team sleep on a lesser Carolina Hurricanesteam in the second round two years ago. Thomas' Vezina-winning regularseason had led the Bruins to the top seed in the East, and then they were ousted in roundtwo.
But while Tuesday night won't be recorded as a playoff win for Thomas and theB's, it was as close to a postseason game as you'll get, with the opposing teamdesperate for a win to keep its hopes alive.
And when New Jersey came out of the gate with a purpose,Thomas stood tall. He made 15 first-period saves when his over-matched B'sneeded him most, much like how they'll need him to step up in an actual playoffgame next month.
"Same old, right? Him and Tuukka, whoever's in net, we probably take itfor granted a little bit, because it's very rare that they're not extremelysolid," said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference after the win.
"They just give our team a level of confidence, and I think tonight,definitely, when it took a few minutes for us to really find our game, toloosen up a bit. There's been a lot said, but he's just been solid. And I thinkthat's all you can really say. That sums it up, really."
Thomas went 0-2-2 in his previous four starts, but nobody in the Bruins lockerroom was worried that their veteran goaltender, and team MVP, was losing astep.
"I don't think we have to worry about him," said coach Claude Julien. "He's been a good goaltender for us this year. He certainly wasn't aconcern."
That's why there was perhaps so little said about Thomas after the game. Thattype of performance is expected, even against a guy like Brodeur on the otherside.
"I think he outbattles everybody that shoots the puck at him," saidFerence. "Marty Brodeur and Timmy, they're going to play their own game.They're both going to be great. But the competition is more Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk versusTimmy.
"Thomas is going to rise to the challenge when he's in those big games. Heenjoys being the guy, and that's a great trait for a goalie."
Kovalchuk finished the night with a game-high six shots, and scored NewJersey's lone goal on a power play in the first period.
But other than that, Thomas was rock solid. And he credited it to his defenseallowing him to see the puck a little more than in previous games.
"I just think of it, just, I've got to stop as many pucks that make itto the net as possible," said Thomas on New Jersey's first-period attack."Because I have to be ready to play if I only get five shots. So I don'twant to hope for any different way. I just want to react, in other words."
Thomas reacted, on Tuesday night, the way the Bruins are accustomed to himreacting. And that usually means him stopping the puck. They just need him toalso react like that in the playoffs.
And since Tuesday night was the closest thing you can get to a playoff game without actually being in one, that's a good sign.
Danny Picard is on Twitter at http:twitter.comDannyPicard. You can listen to Danny on hisstreaming radio show I'm Just Sayin' Monday-Friday from9-10 a.m. on CSNNE.com.