Late Thomas stops keep Bruins afloat
MONTREAL — Vezina Trophy winners do not gag up three-goal leads in the playoffs. They should not allow two five-hole goals to trickle between their pads.
Last night in Game 3 at the Bell Centre, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas let the latter happen. But Thomas was intent on not seeing the former take place under his watch.
In the final five minutes of regulation, when nerves can implode and weak minds shatter, Thomas was at his best. As shaky as Thomas was on the Canadiens’ first two goals, the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina submitted a lockdown performance when his teammates needed it the most.
After Thomas made several money stops, Chris Kelly buried an empty-net goal to give the Bruins a 4-2 win before 21,273.
“He made some big saves,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “The fact that he was able to do that shows a lot of character. There’s no doubt he’d like to have those two goals [back] that went in on him. A goaltender could have just had negative thoughts in his mind and not been sharp at the end. But for him to do what he did meant that he was willing to redeem himself and give us the big saves. He did that. They were huge.’’
At 15:30 of the third, with the Bruins clinging to a 3-2 lead, Thomas made his sharpest save of the night. As Andrei Kostitsyn whistled a shot on goal from the left circle, an aggressive Thomas charged out of his crease and stuffed the No. 1 right wing.
He continued to turn out difference-making saves. At 17:25, Thomas turned aside Scott Gomez’s point-blank bid. After the Canadiens won an offensive-zone faceoff, Kostitsyn had another close-range sniff. Thomas booted out Kostitsyn’s shot with his right pad at 17:30. Then, when Mathieu Darche broke over the blue line and fired a shot on net, Thomas flashed his glove to snare the winger’s bid at 18:11.
As usual, Thomas was on top of his game when he had been counted out. Those final saves served as Thomas’s message to the Canadiens. But they also stood as his personal redemption for his two previous softies.
“Certainly that’s what I was trying for, to make sure we win that game,’’ said Thomas (34 saves). “I was happy. I was happy to get the win. The team needed it. I needed it. It all worked out.’’
There was no guarantee Thomas would even get last night’s start. It was not his fault that five glaring cough-ups by his teammates in Games 1 and 2 led to all five Montreal goals. At the same time, Thomas couldn’t make timely saves to help out his mates. Down 2-0, Julien could have gone with Tuukka Rask, more to shake up the Bruins than to reflect his dissatisfaction with Thomas.
But Thomas nearly failed his coach’s faith. The Bruins, who had never led before last night, took a 1-0 edge at 3:11 when David Krejci beat Carey Price. They went ahead by two at 14:38 of the first after Nathan Horton banked a shot off Price that went in. The Bruins made it a 3-0 game at 2:02 of the second after Price’s clearing attempt bonked off Mark Recchi. Rich Peverley found the loose puck and winged in a shot.
The Bruins could have grabbed a 4-0 lead later in the second. Milan Lucic stripped P.K. Subban at the offensive blue line, giving himself a Grade-A look on Price. But Price stopped Lucic’s shot.
Appropriately, the Canadiens scored on the following rush.
Kostitsyn went one-on-one with Zdeno Chara. Kostitsyn got a step on Chara, but he was left with a bad-angle shot on net. Kostitsyn tapped a weak backhander on goal. Somehow, Kostitsyn’s slow-moving shot dribbled between Thomas’s pads at 7:03 of the second. Thomas had given the Canadiens some life.
“Those five-hole goals especially, you never want to give up,’’ said Thomas. “I think somebody might have hit Kostitsyn’s stick on the first one right as he was shooting. That made it go in a little different place.’’
As weak as Kostitsyn’s goal was, Thomas would allow a pillow-soft strike in the third. Tomas Plekanec carried the puck down the right wing. As Plekanec approached the right circle, the No. 1 center pulled up, turned, and snapped a sharp-angle shot toward Thomas. Somehow, Plekanec’s shot rolled between Thomas’s legs once more, this time at 4:08 of the third.
Thomas — gag, cough, gurgle — had allowed a three-goal lead to turn into a one-score nail-biter.
“I didn’t pick up the puck from Plekanec until late,’’ said Thomas. “It was that spinaround and I didn’t pick it up until it was nearly to me. I just moved my stick out of the way. They’re not pretty goals. But it’s hockey. You’re going to get scored on. It’s how you respond that’s big.’’
For all the wrong reasons, Thomas was a game-changer on Montreal’s first two goals. But he cleared his mind, released his dark thoughts, and found his touch again. He was quick. Sharp. Aggressive.
In the end, Thomas changed the game in the right way.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.