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Christopher L. Gasper

Thomas thinks outside the crease

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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Perhaps the Vancouver Canucks could place a suggestion box outside Rogers Arena before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final tonight and ask their fretting fans what they should try to put the puck past Tim Thomas. It might take some outside-the-box thinking to beat a goalie who approaches stopping the puck in a less-than-traditional manner.

For all his success in a rags-to-Vezina career with warm-up stops in places such as Birmingham, Ala., Houston, Hamilton, Ontario, Finland, and Sweden, there has been a lingering question about Thomas and his highly unorthodox style — now known as “battlefly.’’

Could he be counted on with his diving, sprawling, daring, and occasionally maddening approach to puck-stopping to backstop a team to the Cup?

The answer is yes. After all the false starts and false idols from Pete Peeters to Jon Casey to Blaine Lacher to Andrew Raycroft, the Bruins finally have found a goalie capable of carrying them to the Cup. There is no more doubting Thomas, who is the biggest reason the Bruins are two wins shy of bringing Lord Stanley’s hallowed hardware back to the Hub after a too-long hiatus.

If that happens, youth hockey goalies across New England are going to start playing Thomas’s flop-till-you-drop style, just as Little Leaguers once imitated Nomar Garciaparra’s glove-tugging, toe-tapping ritual.

The 37-year-old Thomas, who recorded his third shutout of the playoffs Wednesday night with a 38-save virtuoso effort in Boston’s 4-0 win, has been the greatest advantage the Bruins have enjoyed in every playoff series, and the Cup Final is no different.

“He’s one of the best goalies in the league,’’ said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. “I mean, he’s up for the Vezina [again]. He plays his own style, and he’s playing it well right now. He’s giving his team a real good chance to win.’’

While Canucks counterpart Roberto Luongo has foundered, allowing 12 goals on the Boston leg of the series and getting yanked in Game 4, Thomas has seized the stage and the series. He has held the Canucks to one goal or fewer in three of the four games and stopped 141 of 146 shots (96.6 save percentage).

“I think Thomas has been great. That’s the only thing,’’ said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. “We got enough chances. Sometimes in a series you get those bounces you need, but Thomas has been unbelievable. We need to find a way to solve him.’’

As the Cup Final shifts back to Vancouver, tied 2-2, the momentum has shifted inside the 4-foot-by-6-foot slices of hockey heaven on either end. Luongo is an under-siege sieve, letting in goals and criticism. Thomas is a cement wall, blocking out the Canucks and his cult-hero status.

“I’ve been so focused on playing in the playoffs that I’m a little removed from what’s happening inside the city right now,’’ said Thomas after Game 4.

While Thomas’s mind is free of distraction, it’s clear he is occupying quite a bit of space inside the brains of the Canucks.

Ever since Thomas held Vancouver to a single goal in Game 1, Vigneault and the Canucks have been kvetching about Thomas’s forays outside the blue paint of his crease. They’d like to slip one of those electronic ankle bracelets on Thomas to make sure he stays inside the crease and out of their heads with his constant movement and challenging of shooting angles.

He has reduced the league’s highest-scoring team during the regular season to a diffident bunch that talks about beating him with lucky bounces, greasy goals, and instead of its power play, the power of positive thinking.

“You can say all you want, but he’s a good goalie,’’ said the Canucks’ Daniel Sedin. “You just got to keep shooting and get a lucky bounce. It sounds kind of cliché, but that’s the way it is.

“Get a few lucky bounces, and things are going to open up. All we can do is stay upbeat. We’re tied, 2-2. We got the best out of three, and we got two home games. We can’t be discouraged.’’

How can you not be discouraged when Thomas is stopping everything but your entrance into the arena?

Right now, the Canucks couldn’t find the back of the net with a GPS. Their power play is 1 for 22. Reigning Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin came into the series leading the NHL in playoff points but has a 0-0—0 line in four games against the Bruins.

Henrik Sedin was asked what the Canucks could do to open things up against Thomas, and kiddingly replied, “Do you know?’’ Then he talked about continuing to shoot.

But Thomas is the type of goalie who actually gets sharper the more shots he faces.

He is 9-1 during the playoffs when facing 35 or more shots. Thomas has repelled more vulcanized rubber this postseason than almost any goalie in history. His 701 saves trail only the 761 made in 1994 by Canucks goalie Kirk McLean. The series is going at least two more games, and it’s quite likely Thomas will surpass that mark.

The Canucks have tried getting physical with Thomas, but that has backfired, too. Thomas belted Henrik Sedin in the crease in Game 3 and late in Game 4 chopped Alex Burrows with his paddle before turning pugilistic with the Vancouver pest.

“He seems to really enjoy those battles in front and whacking and hacking,’’ said Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “It’s just great to see him battling.’’

Thomas has always battled — for his job and against conventional wisdom.

The unconventional has never looked so good.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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