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No doubt Thomas could use a break

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 1, 2011

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DULUTH, Ga. — Tim Thomas has started seven straight games, and two of the last three have gone into a shootout.

So yes, perhaps Thomas was physically and mentally gassed in Thursday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Atlanta. Tuukka Rask will start tonight against Buffalo for the first time since Dec. 15. Rask’s last start was also against the Sabres, who beat him on three of 35 shots in a 3-2 win at HSBC Arena.

“Did he look a little bit tired? Maybe,’’ coach Claude Julien said yesterday of Thomas. “I still saw him making some big saves at crucial times. He played a decent game. When you look back at Timmy and the number of games he’s won for us this year, there’s no doubt about anything we did with him.’’

Julien had no regrets about giving Thomas his seventh straight start because of the relative ease of the schedule. The Bruins had last Friday and Saturday off because of the Christmas break. Thomas and his teammates — save for Rask and Brad Marchand — didn’t skate on Tuesday morning prior to that night’s 4-3 win over Tampa Bay.

All the players were off on Wednesday in Atlanta. That day, Julien met with Thomas to gauge his strength and whether he was ready for another start the following night against the Thrashers. Thomas had posted back-to-back wins over Florida and Tampa Bay. Also, Julien was hesitant about starting Rask after a day with no practice.

“I really wanted to know how he felt,’’ Julien said. “He said he felt fine and he was ready to go [on Thursday]. Based on my conversation with him, you make an educated decision on that. I really felt that he was ready to go.’’

Thomas (18-4-4, 1.74 goals-against average, .947 save percentage) has made 27 appearances, and Rask (2-7-1, 2.57 GAA, .927 save percentage) has been in 10 games. The Bruins have always maintained that given Thomas’s athletic style, it would not be prudent to give him workloads like those of Carey Price (35 appearances), Jonas Hiller (34), or Cam Ward (31). Whether it’s been Rask, Manny Fernandez, or Alex Auld, Julien has always been careful to monitor Thomas’s ice time with a proper partner. Under Julien, Thomas’s biggest workload was in 2007-08, when he appeared in 57 games.

Thomas himself has been an advocate of giving both goalies ice time.

“I still hold to that,’’ he said. “But just in this situation, we had a couple breaks. It was seven games in a row, but we had a couple days off in between at a couple different times. Before [Thursday’s] game, we got in two nights before, which is nice. That ends up helping.’’

Last year in the playoffs, the Bruins saw Rask wilt under the physical and mental strain of being the go-to goalie with Thomas struggling through a torn labrum in his hip. They are not planning to burn out either goalie again.

Wheeler on a roll There have been times — a five-game 0-0—0 run in early December, for example — when Blake Wheeler has played like a ghost. But lately, whether it’s been in a matchup role or a scoring position, Wheeler has been arguably the team’s best forward.

Earlier in December, Julien used Wheeler, Patrice Bergeron, and Mark Recchi as a defensive line. On Dec. 18, while matching up against Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble, Wheeler had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win at TD Garden.

And since Julien shuffled his lines and reunited Wheeler with David Krejci and Michael Ryder, the left wing has been dynamic offensively. Last Monday, Wheeler set up Krejci for a goal, then recorded the only shootout tally in a 3-2 win over the Panthers. Wheeler scored a second-period goal on Thursday with one of five shots he landed on net.

Julien credits Wheeler’s emergence to chemistry and confidence.

“I thought he was doing a great job when he was playing with Bergeron and Recchi with his speed,’’ Julien said. “He was creating things. On the forecheck, they were a hard-working line. The only thing was that he wasn’t able to score as much as he has lately. Right now, we’ve got that trio that seems to be playing really well together. You hope that becomes contagious with some of the other lines.’’

Not quite right Gregory Campbell didn’t participate in yesterday’s practice, after missing Thursday’s game because he was sick. Tyler Seguin, who replaced Campbell on the fourth line against Atlanta, remained centering Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton yesterday . . . Because they were unable to get hotel rooms in Buffalo, the Bruins skated at the IceForum, the Thrashers’ practice facility, for an hour prior to an afternoon departure. Brad Marchand, while skating with Bergeron and Recchi, took a hard tumble into the end boards, halting practice for several seconds as Marchand regained his breath. The left wing shook it off and completed the practice. “I liked our tempo in practice today,’’ Julien said. “I thought they skated well. They’re focused and determined to keep going here. I like the atmosphere around the team right now.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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