Published May 28, 2011
At 37, Thomas is in the Final for the first time in a hockey career that began at the University of Vermont and has taken him through three North American minor leagues, three different teams in Finland and another in Sweden. His NHL debut came during a four-game cup of coffee during the 2002-03 season -- after which he spent two more seasons in the AHL and made his third and final stop in Finland. He finally became a full-time NHL regular at 31, an age where far more players are preparing for the end of their careers than the beginning.
Thomas isn't exactly an overnight sensation -- he did win the Vezina Trophy in 2008-09. But after losing his starting job to rookie Tuukka Rask during an injury-plagued 2009-10 season, he had to play his way back into a starting role -- and did it well enough to be named a Vezina Trophy finalist for the second time in three years.
He began the playoffs by losing twice at home to Montreal, but rebounded to become the first goaltender in franchise history to lead the Bruins out of an 0-2 hole to a series win. He then sparked a sweep of Philadelphia in the second round and outdueled Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson in the Eastern Conference Finals, ending with a 1-0 victory in Game 7 that got the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1990.
"Timmy has been great for us all along and again, the way he played was great," center Patrice Bergeron said. "I thought everyone played well. We all chipped in and we all got some great blocked shots. But also, we didn't give them too much in the slot, which probably made it easier for Tank (Thomas) -- and he deserves that."
Most players in all sports begin to lose something as they get older. Thomas seems to be the opposite.
"He's not getting any younger, right? I think everybody knows that -- I think he knows that," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after Thomas' 24-save performance in Game 7. "But one thing I can say is he's getting better. So sometimes we talk about aging, and basically in his case he's getting better. It's an area where I don't think Timmy's had an opportunity to go to and it means a lot to him. We played extremely well in front of him, but he still had to make some good saves, some important saves, and he made those. Timmy made the saves he had to make and it's very fitting for him to get a shutout in a game like that, because he's been good for us all year and he’s deserving of all the good things that are happening to him."
It has taken a while for all those "good things" to come -- and even this season, there was no certainty they would.
One year after winning the Vezina, Thomas started the 2010-11 season as a backup goaltender. But after the Bruins lost to Phoenix in their opener in Prague with Rask in goal, Thomas got the call the next day and delivered a 3-0 shutout. All he's done since then is keep the puck out of the net better than any goaltender in the League -- he was tops in goals-against average (2.00) and save percentage (a single-season League-record .938).
"Timmy has been really great since the start of the season," forward Milan Lucic said. "His first start in Prague we got a 3-0 victory and you just saw he wanted to make amends for having a not-so-great season last year. He is definitely going to win a Vezina his year. He has been our best player from the start of the year. Hats off to Timmy, playing as good as he has. He is just going to have to keep doing what he is doing."
Thomas surrendered four or more goals in four of the seven games against Tampa Bay, but he allowed just one goal combined in the other three -- a 2-0 shutout in Game 3, a 3-1 win in Game 5 in which he made perhaps the save of the playoffs on Tampa Bay's Steve Downie, and Friday's win that sent Thomas and his teammates to the Final against Vancouver.
"Nobody in the world would have thought this a year ago today," Thomas said following Game 7. "I think there are a lot of people thinking I was over the hill. I knew it wasn't true. I put in a lot of work last summer, and it's amazing, the year I've had. I've been blessed."