THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Thomas’s performance is a huge hit

He protects his net ferociously

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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With the Bruins physically punishing Vancouver throughout Game 3 — an assortment of Canucks spinning and dropping like bowling pins every few minutes following another big hit — Tim Thomas simply couldn’t take it anymore.

So he got in a body blow of his own, a two-handed, highlight-reel shove on Henrik Sedin that let the Canucks, all 17,565 fans at TD Garden, and anyone watching on television know that Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final would look nothing like Games 1 or 2. Not visually, and, following an 8-1 Bruins victory, not on the scoreboard.

Channeling some of the Big, Bad Bruins who were in attendance, the Bruins dutifully played the role of aggressor from nearly the beginning, once Nathan Horton was frighteningly taken out by Aaron Rome six minutes in. After that, it was a one-sided, backyard beatdown.

“We’re more back in it than we were at the beginning of the game,’’ cracked Thomas. “Baby steps. We needed to win this game to take the momentum back and help get us in this series. If we win the next game, then I’ll be comfortable saying we’re right back in it.’’

Thomas’s hit on Sedin personified the physical tone the Bruins brought to the ice. With Boston leading, 4-0, early in the third period, Sedin gloved a flying puck and tried to bring it down to his stick as he neared Thomas’s crease. Thomas, sensing an intruder, left his cage and went into attack mode, lunging at Sedin like a linebacker going for a bone-crunching tackle. Both of Thomas’s gloved hands met Sedin squarely in the chest, sending the 6-foot-2-inch, 188-pound Canuck sprawling to the ice, puck poked away, scoring chance thwarted.

The play might have been overshadowed by the Bruins’ eight goals and Thomas’s 40 saves, but anyone looking for a sign that everybody in a black sweater was on the same page in a must-win game found one in the 37-year-old backstop from Flint, Mich. He wasn’t going to be pushed around; in fact, he’d be doing the pushing.

“That’s his style. He doesn’t get intimidated easily by opposing forwards,’’ said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “He likes to hold his position. We know what kind of battler he is.’’

With the Bruins’ offense struggling the first two games — both one-goal losses — it was assumed by many that Thomas would have to be great, not merely good, for his team to have any chance. Last night he was great, keeping the game scoreless with a pair of point-blank stops with a minute left in the first period, which was followed by a four-goal outburst once the teams returned to the ice.

Still nursing that four-goal lead early in the third period, but with the game growing increasingly chippy, Thomas stopped a shot by Chris Higgins near the goal line. With the Canuck winger pushing and shoving above him and play whistled dead, Thomas whacked Higgins on the leg with his stick, a quick jab that served as an appetizer to what took place three minutes later, when Sedin came calling.

It’s a play Thomas has seen before.

“That happens in practice all the time, and they’ve scored goals on me by catching it like that,’’ Thomas said. “I’ve learned [he] can put it down this way or can put it down that way. I had one-one-hundredth of a second to make a decision, and that’s the way I chose to play it.’’

Facing some criticism after the Game 2 loss when he came out of his crease and was beaten on an overtime wraparound, Thomas reiterated that nothing was changed before last night’s game. If anything, he took some of what worked in Vancouver and carried it to the Garden.

“I was happy with at least the base of how I was playing the first two games,’’ said Thomas, whose bid for a shutout ended on a goal by Jannik Hansen with 6:07 left in the game. By then, the Bruins already had five goals, and they’d add three more.

Thomas maintained his level of play, upped it, in fact, an effort that was matched by four lines of teammates, who pushed and shoved and checked and smacked their way to their first win of the series. For the most part, Thomas was stone-faced after the game, knowing there’s much more work to be done.

It was hard to tell, though, what number from the stat sheet he was more proud of: 40 saves, or one hit. Both left a lasting impression.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.

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