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Thomas gave them his all

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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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The Bruins weren’t what they needed to be last night, but there are nights when that doesn’t matter. Which is to say, that’s hockey. Best effort doesn’t always win. Lesser effort isn’t guaranteed to lose. Most nights, best goaltender trumps every card and every prognostication in the deck.

So, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was, for the most part, about Tim Thomas. The Bruins now own a 3-2 lead in the series, stand 60 minutes from reaching their first Cup final in 21 years, and reasons No. 1 thru No. 98 on the Top 100 Reasons they won last night belong to the unorthodox backstop from Flint, Mich., whose parents once cashed in their wedding rings so he could keep chasing his dream.

“That’s there, the fact that we’re one win away,’’ said Thomas, who allowed Tampa Bay a goal on its first shot, then snuffed out 33 straight over the remaining 58:51, including one save that will be televised, YouTubed, and NHLnetworked for decades to come. “But our focus is only on the next game . . . try to focus on that as good as we can . . . we are trying just to get one win, not one win to get to the Stanley Cup finals.’’

This is the first time since 1990, their last visit to the Cup finals, that the Bruins have won 11 postseason games. Hockey is hot again in the Hub, for many reasons, but most of all because of the 37-year-old former University of Vermont backstop. Had it not been for his handiwork this season, the Bruins would have been challenged to land a playoff spot. Now they’re a one-hour stone’s throw from an invite that could bring them their first Cup championship since the likes of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito were the pillars of our sports consciousness.

The crown jewel in Thomas’s performance last night came with 9:20 gone in the third period, the Bruins clinging to a 2-1 lead, able to muster only enough attack in the period at that point to land one shot on Mike Smith. On yet another dazzling foray into the Boston end, ex-Harvard star Dominic Moore intentionally fired wide left of the net with a sizzling slapper from 50-plus feet.

“The first thing I want to say,’’ said Thomas, smiling slightly as he waded into his recollection on his sparkling save, “is that my recollection might not be what the video is.’’

In other words, things were moving rather quickly and frantically as they often do in the New NHL. Rushes are incessant, shots come from everywhere, and the New World order is that there is little order at all. This was one of those times. Moore unloaded, looking for action off the rear board, with winger Steve Downie ambling toward the left post with his eye fixed on the wide-open drapes trimmed by those three red posts.

“There were a couple of screens when he shot,’’ said Thomas, noting he had to find the puck as it made its way through a pair of players close to Moore, and another pair closer to his net. “One up top. One closer. I couldn’t see the puck . . . and when I saw it went wide, I didn’t have time to get my whole body back.’’

The puck kicked off the rear wall and came right to Downie, positioned perfectly for the forehand sweep into the wide-open net. This was going in the net, game tied, no question about it . . . until a lunging, flailing Thomas reached out his big goalie’s paddle and turned back Downie’s attempt with his stick blade. For Downie, the play went tape to tape to nightmare.

Planned, no. A little lucky, absolutely, and Thomas knew it.

“With the way the new boards are nowadays in all the arenas you’ve got to be on your toes with the big bounces, and the big bounce came out and, you know, it was just a reaction and a desperation,’’ said Thomas. “I’ll admit I got a little bit lucky there.’’

“Unbelievable,’’ said teammate Brad Marchand, who in the second period fired home what proved to be the winning goal. “I was on the bench, and I thought it was in for sure, an easy tap-in. That was a turning point.’’

Thomas, now 11-5 in the postseason, became bulletin board material in the Tampa dressing room for something he said following the Game 4 loss in Tampa. According to Thomas, all he said was that he felt the Bruins would win, which is just a few chest beatings short of boldly, Mark Messier-like, guaranteeing victory. But the playoffs being what they are — a hype machine that runs hotter than ever in the Internet age — the Bolts attempted to capitalize on his open ruminating.

“We might as well stay home,’’ sarcastically opined Tampa’s rookie coach, Guy Boucher.

Because his comments were blown out of proportion, said Thomas, there was some added pressure going into last night, which he tried his best to ignore.

“Well, there was no guarantee,’’ he said. “The way the question was framed was more to the effect of, ‘How do I see the rest of the series going?’ In my mind, I was thinking about how I visualize, and of course I’m going to visualize us winning the series. I’m not going to sit there and visualize us losing.’’

The wins keep piling up. More this season than any time since the likes of Ray Bourque, Dave Poulin, Cam Neely, and Andy Moog were working the old building on Causeway Street. It always takes goaltending. It always takes at least a bit of luck. Last night, the Bruins had both in Thomas. A little bit more of both, and it looks like we’re going to have the kind of fun on Causeway Street that we haven’t seen in a very long time.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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