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A stabilizing force between the pipes

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 14, 2009 09:36 AM

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There were 34 saves in all, some of them ordinary, some of them spectacular. But on this night, Tim Thomas made every bit the statement with one rather revealing shot.

The Bruins are 43 games into this renaissance season, and we can now all agree that certain truths are self-evident. The Bruins can attack on one end of the ice and defend on the other, and they can fight for everything in between. And when push comes to shove, when their mettle is tested, the Bruins can just as easily line up behind the 5-foot-11 Thomas as they can the 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara, the tandem that now serves as the last line of defense in the revitalized Garden on Causeway Street.

And so, in spite of a spirited 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens last night that further solidified the Bruins' firm hold on the Northeast Division, maybe the most telling moment came when an angry Thomas belted the menacing Andrei Kostitsyn with a forearm to the side of the head near the end of the second period.

He shoots ... and he scores.

"I heard the hit and I saw Wardo down," said Thomas, referring to the Kostitsyn check on Aaron Ward that resulted in a five-minute major penalty (for boarding) and knocked Ward from the game. "The first thing that went through my mind was [Patrice] Bergeron and Andrew Alberts last year. Having seen the replay now, it was nowhere near as bad of a hit. But I didn't know that at the time. You just react when you see man down. It's instinct."

But then, what is goaltending if not instinct and reflex?

The Bruins are young. In some ways, they are untested. And now the Bruins are wounded, saddled with a list of injuries to everyone from Bergeron and Phil Kessel to Milan Lucic, Marco Sturm and Andrew Ference. Now Ward may be lost for a short period of time, too, the result of the rapid sequence that began with him blocking a shot and ended with him getting blindsided by Kostitsyn.

Yet, the Bruins continue to win, now the possessors of 32-7-4 record that has produced an Eastern Conference-leading 68 points. They are 17-3-1 at the TD Banknorth Garden. The Bruins now have defeated the Canadiens in each of the teams' last three meetings this season and they are now doing what most everyone hoped they would.

They are persevering.

In that area, the Bruins could learn a great deal from their soon-to-be 35-year-old goalie, who stopped 17 shots in a relatively lopsided first period, 10 more in the second, seven more in a frantic third. Montreal's only goal came on a power play, Kostitsyn jamming home a rebound from just beyond the crease with a helpless Thomas sprawled on the ice in the middle period. Thomas was otherwise perfect, turning away everything the Canadiens could muster.

By now, Thomas's story is well known, if for no other reason than the fact that he has set a new standard for someone refusing to take no for an answer. Drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round (217th overall) of the 1994 draft, Thomas spent much of his career in the minors. To get playing time, he was forced to go to Europe, where he played in both Sweden and Finland. As recently as two offseasons ago, the Bruins traded for Manny Fernandez with the idea that he could possibly supplant Thomas as the No. 1 goalie, which has resulted in the Bruins now possessing the best goaltending tandem in the entire NHL.

At the moment, Fernandez, too, is out with an injury, which places an additional burden on Thomas, though it remains to be seen for how long. In two starts since the arrival of new backup Tuukka Rask, Thomas has stopped 63 of 65 shots, a whopping save percentage of .969. The Bruins have outscored the opposition, 8-2. Overall, the Bruins are 9-1 in Thomas's last 10 starts, though that is consistent with the absurd pace at which they have played all season.

Last night, for all of the shots Thomas turned away in the first period, he was at his very best in the third, with the Bruins clinging to a 2-1 lead. Deep in the Bruins zone, the Canadiens were rapidly firing the puck from wing to wing as Thomas frantically shuttled across the goal mouth, desperate to preserve Boston's advantage. The puck ultimately settled on the stick of Kostitsyn -- yes, him again -- who whipped a shot from the right slot that appeared destined for the top corner of Thomas' glove side.
Sprawling forward, his glove hand up and outstretched, Thomas snared the puck. Again, albeit this time as the result of a far different blow, Kostitsyn slumped. Roughly a minute later, David Krejci jammed home a pass from Michael Ryder to give the Bruins what proved an insurmountable 3-1 lead, concluding a night on which Thomas was quite literally in the middle of it all.

"He played unbelievable," Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart said of Thomas. "Take out the huge saves he made for us and it's a different game."

Said Chara, focusing on Thomas's blow to Kostityn's head in the second period, "We support each other, we back up each other, we play for each other. We know what this team's all about."

Last night, nobody conveyed that more than the man between the pipes.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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