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JACKIE MACMULLAN

With Thomas, puck stops here

Tim Thomas was at the end of the Bruins’ congratulatory celebration after stopping 16 Montreal shots.
Tim Thomas was at the end of the Bruins’ congratulatory celebration after stopping 16 Montreal shots. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

Pro hockey has a pulse again in Boston.

It was just like the old days at TD Banknorth Garden last night. The Bruins and the Canadiens, neck and neck in the standings, battled in a game loaded with end-to-end action. There was even a too-many-men-on-the-ice call against the Bruins.

Who cares that both teams are battling for the last playoff spot instead of first place in the division? You gotta start somewhere.

The Bruins skated off 3-1 winners, making them a tidy 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. The common denominator has been throwback goalie Tim Thomas, a hockey everyman who played at the University of Vermont, invented his own hockey mask to avoid breathing stale air, debuted as a pro in 2002-03 with Boston, and has been dreaming of minding the net for the Black and Gold ever since.

He has caught our attention in the midst of a Super Bowl, a baseball saga, and a trigger-happy basketball team. Many left the Bruins for dead weeks ago, but Thomas has resurrected their postseason hopes with top-notch goaltending.

Thomas was not the No. 1 star last night. That honor deservedly went to Patrice Bergeron, whose masterful stickhandling was another reason to be hopeful this team has turned the corner. The goaltender only needed to make 16 saves -- quite a difference in the workload from Monday night, when he turned back 44 Ottawa shots en route to a glittering 5-0 shutout.

Yet, Thomas said, in some ways this kind of game was more challenging.

''It's a little tougher mentally," he said. ''You have to really bear down. They weren't getting many chances, but I was trying to stay on my toes in case they got that big chance so I could stop it and save the game. I don't think I ever quite had to make that save, but that's a credit to our defense."

Thomas was beaten in the first period on a top-shelf blast by Tomas Plekanec, who had too much daylight for Thomas to have a fighting chance. Thomas was clean the rest of the way, robbing Alex Kovalev early, holding off Chris Higgins from point-blank range, gloving a Sheldon Souray blast from the point with 16:15 left in the game, then thwarting Souray again with the clock under four minutes.

You have to wonder how many teams are kicking themselves (a truly painful proposition if the skates are laced up at the time) for passing on Thomas when the Bruins recalled him from Providence Jan. 10 after the struggling Andrew Raycroft suffered a leg injury. In accordance with the new collective bargaining agreement, any NHL team could have claimed Thomas on waivers for half his remaining salary for the season -- roughly $122,500.

With goaltender Hannu Toivenen also shelved with an ankle injury, it was paramount for the Bruins to somehow sneak Thomas up to the big club. It was a long 24 hours from noon Monday until lunchtime Tuesday, in part because Thomas's December numbers in the AHL (10-4 with a 1.68 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage) suggested he was ready to play with the big boys.

Considering the team's sorry state at the time, sweating out Thomas's arrival at the Garden was one more migraine the Bruins' front office would have rather not endured. They fretted about Chicago. They wrung their hands over St. Louis.

''We were very nervous," confessed general manager Mike O'Connell.

Thomas cleared waivers, and, as the puckheads like to say, has been standing on his head since. You wonder how much longer he can keep it up.

You also wonder why it took so long for him to get his chance.

''It just happens sometimes," O'Connell said. ''Guys fall through the cracks, or you already have guys in place."

The Bruins had Raycroft. He won the Calder Trophy in 2003-04 as the league's top rookie, and the plan was to build Boston's franchise around players such as him and Jumbo Joe Thornton. A year and a half later, Thornton is on the West Coast and Raycroft is on the bench. He is neither the first nor the last goalie to experience the extremes of his profession. One year, a goalie can be all world, the next he can be all but forgotten.

''There's usually 10 really good goalies a year," O'Connell said. ''Five of them, you know who they are right away. And the other five, you have no idea who they are. They might be one of your guys."

Although no one could have forecasted Thomas's superb play (29 teams wouldn't have passed on him if he was such a surefire bet), it's not like he came out of nowhere. As former goalie Gerry Cheevers noted, ''Every place he's been, he's been a top goaltender. He's very intelligent in reading plays. It enables him to get in good position."

Thomas submitted 15 shutouts in the Finnish Elite League last season, more than all the other teams in the league combined. Before you start in with your Scandinavian wisecracks, keep in mind there was a lockout in effect, and there were many top NHL players trying to put the puck past Thomas on any given night. Few succeeded. He led the league in games, wins, and GAA, earning MVP honors. Even so, he felt that after eight seasons, his opportunity at a regular NHL gig had come and gone.

''I had actually made peace with the fact I wasn't going to get my chance," he acknowledged. ''I let the dream die, so to speak. I was going to be happy playing in Finland. Then, all of a sudden, Boston stuck the carrot under my nose and I was back chasing the dream again."

Thomas is an easy guy to root for. He is a humble, American-born goalie who was the 217th pick in the 1994 draft. Up until a few months ago, he tooled around in a '98 Taurus. He has three adorable kids, has impeccable manners, and is -- you guessed it -- just happy for the opportunity.

''I'm very excited for him," O'Connell said. ''He's worked hard for this. I hope it continues."

Isn't that what we all are wondering? Can Thomas sustain his play, and will the Bruins follow suit? It's no accident the team's turnaround has coincided with Thomas's ascension. Still, it seems a bit premature to write off Raycroft, particularly considering how porous the defense was back when he was in net. One thing the embattled O'Connell has learned is not to set anything in stone.

''We had the Rookie of the Year in net two years ago," O'Connell said. ''The problem is your performance is so magnified by the position. There might be some other second-year guys who aren't playing as well, but they're not goalies. If you're a goalie, you're going to be exposed."

''I don't care who you are, if you're a goalie, you won't go through your career without struggling," said Cheevers. ''The key is for the individual to get out of the funk."

Conversely, if you are a goalie that stands on your head for 10 straight games, you try your best not to change a thing. Along the way, you can win an awful lot of hearts in this town.

Tim Thomas is the No. 1 goaltender for the Black and Gold for the foreseeable future. He knows the pitfalls that come with the job, but who cares? He's been waiting nine years for this. Let the good times roll.

He'll worry about standing on his feet later.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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