It was a rare occasion, Dec. 18 at the TD Banknorth Garden. Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas went into the dressing room after the second period having allowed five goals on 23 shots. His team led Toronto, 6-5, but blowing a 5-1 second-period lead would prompt any NHL coach to make a change.
Fortunately for the Bruins, coach Claude Julien has the luxury of a two-goalie system. Confident enough in that night’s backup, Julien told Manny Fernandez to protect the twine for the final 20 minutes of regulation.
“There haven’t been many nights like that this year,” said Thomas. “It’s going to happen throughout an 82-game season. Look around — it will happen to [Roberto] Luongo once. [Martin] Brodeur, when he’s healthy, it happens to him. It happens to everybody.
“We won,” added a frustrated Thomas. “Isn’t that the ultimate goal?”
It is. And even though it was Fernandez who saved 13 shots and closed out the 8-5 win, Thomas gets the message. It’s nothing personal. It’s just about winning.
Heading into this season, the Bruins knew they had depth at every position, but none was deeper than their goaltending.
Thomas was coming off the best season of his career, which included his first NHL All-Star Game appearance. Fernandez was recovering from season-ending knee surgery he had the season before, in which he played only four games (2-2, 3.93 goals-against average) in his first season with the Bruins.
Both were healthy and ready to go. Julien had to decide who would be his No. 1. Would it be the returning All-Star or the man with the $4.3 million salary? Would there be an issue if one of the two wasn’t getting enough playing time?
“That’s not how it works,” said Fernandez back in training camp. “You get your game in order, and let the coaches make the decisions that they have to make. Both me and Tim have played this game long enough that we have the feeling they’ll put the best guy in there to help the team win.”
Lately, that guy has been Fernandez, but nearly halfway through the regular season, the Bruins’ original theory of not choosing a No. 1 has paid dividends. Julien made it clear in training camp that having a two-goalie system would put the team in a position of strength. And it certainly has. Both Thomas (13-3-3, 2.15 GAA) and Fernandez (11-2-1, 2.09 GAA) are among the league leaders in wins and goals-against average.
“I haven’t changed my thought process on that since Day 1,” said Julien. “I talked about having two good goaltenders, and I’m just going game by game. It has worked well so far, and that is the way I like to see things, because you’re always changing your mind.”
Fernandez has appeared in six of the Bruins’ 10 games in December, starting five of them. Going into Tuesday night’s game in New Jersey, which Thomas started, Fernandez ranked third in the NHL in goals-against average and sixth in the league in save percentage (.926).
Thomas had a stretch earlier in the season during which he made five consecutive starts, the most for either Bruins goaltender all season. Fernandez has yet to get the call for that many games in a row, but like Thomas, he gets it. As long as the team is winning, there shouldn’t be a problem, even if it means having to replace the other mid-game.
For all the Bruins are doing offensively — their 122 goals through 33 games ranks first in the league — their defense has been even better, allowing only 73 goals, which is the best in the league. Fernandez and Thomas combine for the best goals-against average in the NHL at 2.21, and their split time is a big reason the Bruins are in first place in the Eastern Conference.
“They both give us a chance to win every night they’re in there,” said first-line center Marc Savard. “It doesn’t matter which one it is. They’re both great goaltenders. And they get along well, too. You don’t see that often with two guys battling for the starting job. They’re having a lot of fun, and we’re having a lot of fun with them behind us because we’re going to make mistakes in a hockey game, and they’re there to bail us out.”
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports