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Their backbone Thomas bounces back

By Nick Cammarota
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2012
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WASHINGTON - While answering rapid-fire questions from reporters, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas maintained a strong gaze on the inquiring contingent, eyelids slightly drooped.

A 4-3 overtime victory having forced a Game 7 Wednesday in Boston, Thomas was asked about playing in sudden death. How the pressure can creep into a goalie’s head and shake his confidence. Especially when allowing a goal means the end of a season, as it would have for the Bruins Sunday at Verizon Center.

Suddenly, Thomas’s eyelids rose. His eyes got wide, as if focused on an incoming puck, while he answered.

“I’m not really feeling pressure like that,’’ he said. “Yeah, it crossed my mind, but I’m doing my best to get into that mind-set that you get in when you’re playing the game, which is of very little talk in your head. Having said that, in the quiet times every once in a while you realize - especially for us in this case - one shot and our season’s over.’’

One game after what arguably could be considered his worst performance of the series, Thomas saved the only shot he faced in overtime before Tyler Seguin’s winner evened the series at 3. Last year’s Conn Smythe winner improved to 9-2 all-time in elimination games with a 2.01 goals-against average. He hasn’t lost an elimination game since Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal series against Carolina.

“I know he was upset [Saturday] after the game,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Just by his reaction, I had no doubt in my mind he was going to bounce back. He was up early this morning having breakfast and you could see he was prepared for this game.’’

Thomas made 36 saves, 14 in the second period, and played aggressively. He frequently left his crease to challenge Washington’s shooters and cut down angles, particularly in the second. Still, the Capitals tied the score three times after the Bruins took the lead.

Perhaps the goal for which Thomas could be considered most at fault was Alexander Ovechkin’s snap shot off a faceoff. Ovechkin took a feed from Nicklas Backstrom, settled it with his left skate, and fired the equalizer through Thomas’s five-hole with 4:52 remaining in regulation.

“I think [my teammates] felt bad about it. I didn’t even see the shot. It stinks. It’s terrible timing, but sometimes that stuff happens,’’ Thomas said. “They’re all apologizing to me before the overtime and I’m saying, ‘No, I’ve got to try to stop it, too.’ We’re all together. We all share responsibility.’’

After entering Game 6 having led for a total of 14:51, the Bruins accumulated 26:20 of lead time Sunday, perhaps allowing Thomas to be more daring. The 38-year-old said the experience he and his teammates gained from playing in three Game 7s last postseason helped them through Game 6.

“We know how hard it is to come back. The guys stepped up,’’ Thomas said. “It certainly helped last year when we were in Vancouver and having been through that experience. This year, you hope it helps.’’

His highlight-reel save, of which it seems there’s at least one per game, came in the second period. Having killed off a four-minute double minor to Ovechkin for a high stick on Zdeno Chara, the Capitals brimmed with energy. They were heavily outshooting the Bruins midway through the period. With 9:12 remaining, Backstrom intercepted a lazy clear by the Bruins and dished left to Alexander Semin, who one-touched a cross-ice pass to Marcus Johansson at the far left side of the crease. Johansson had plenty of open net to shoot at. Thomas, however - in an save reminiscent of his stop against Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie in Game 5 of last year’s playoffs - dived to his left and extended his stick to get a piece of Johansson’s offering.

“That felt good. That let me know that I was really into the game and following the puck well,’’ Thomas said. “[In Game 5], on the rebound to [Mike] Knuble, I actually got a stick on it, but it went in anyway.’’

This one didn’t.

“It kind of seems normal now,’’ defenseman Andrew Ference of Thomas’s acrobatic saves. “Those do crop up and I think those are the saves where it’s just pure competitiveness. Obviously, the standard ones where he has good positioning don’t make the highlight reel. There are more of those than the flopping around ones, but those are the dramatic ones. Those are the ones where he never gives up. Those are fun to watch.’’

The play of both goaltenders has been sensational in this series - the first in NHL history in which the first six games have all been decided by one goal. But the Bruins still haven’t led by more than one and twice they’ve taken a lead on the final shot of the game. That likely means Thomas’s job won’t be any easier Wednesday when the teams take the ice for Game 7.

“It’s really never a question whether it’s Game 7 or Game 1 or the middle of the season,’’ Ference said of Thomas. “He’s always going to give you his hardest effort.’’

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