COACHING CHANGES TRANSACTIONS POWER POLL DEPTH CHARTS CURRENT ODDS
By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Tim Thomas is used to being counted out by his critics.
Thomas, a goaltender who was selected in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL draft, also knows a thing or two about having his value underestimated.
However, if he continues to stop pucks the way he has so far in 2010-11, Boston's 36-year-old netminder won't have too many critics left.
If you've never taken a glance at Thomas' career statistics they are certainly worth looking up, and not so much for the numbers themselves. Of course, his Vezina Trophy-winning season of 2008-09 was extremely impressive, but the truly interesting thing about Thomas is how many different places his hockey journey took him before he finally caught on in Boston.
After four years at the University of Vermont, the Michigan native become a puck-stopping version of Marco Polo, traveling to points of interest all over the hockey world. He played for pro teams in North American cities like Birmingham and Hamilton and also manned the crease for clubs in Finland and Sweden. Thomas also skated for a team in Detroit, only it wasn't the Red Wings, but rather the Vipers of the now-defunct International Hockey League.
So, when Thomas followed up his career year of 2008-09 by losing his job to a Finnish rookie named Tuukka Rask, many folks didn't even bat an eye. After all, being named the NHL's top goaltender was miles above the expectations anyone could have guessed for Thomas, it seemed to make sense that he would never be able to equal that season.
Thomas' numbers have been so good that they almost don't compute and that's even after he posted his "worst" outing of the season on Wednesday night. Thomas allowed more than one goal in a game for the first time this year, but he still picked up the win in Buffalo by stopping 33 shots in the Bruins' 5-2 decision over the Sabres.
The win against the Sabres moved Thomas to 7-0-0 on the year and allowed him to set a franchise record for consecutive victories to begin a season. The previous mark was held by Tiny Thompson, who won his first six starts of the 1937-38 campaign.
Thomas also missed out on posting his third consecutive shutout on Wednesday, but he still has a .977 save percentage and a 0.72 goals-against average this season. He has allowed just five goals on 220 shots in over 419 minutes between the pipes and he is the biggest reason Boston has 14 points through just nine games this season.
Rask, meanwhile, has been pushed to a backup role once again. He was behind Thomas on the depth chart to begin last season, but the 23-year-old Finn wound up winning the No. 1 job and starting in every postseason game for the Bruins last spring. Head coach Claude Julien even stuck with Rask while he watched his team blow a three-games-to-none lead to Philadelphia in the second round of last year's playoffs.
But, Julien and, even Rask, are both now aware that Thomas has once again earned the right to play nearly every night for Boston.
"We're definitely happy to see him play that way," Julien told Boston's web site about Thomas recently. "It gives us a chance to win, and we know how important goaltending is in this league. He's provided us with some outstanding [performances]."
It also helps that Julien and the rest of the hockey world now knows that injuries played a big role in Thomas taking a step back last year. Thomas played most of the 2009-10 season without even knowing he had a hip problem, but by the time the league broke for the Winter Olympics the goaltender became aware of the issue.
Still, neither Thomas, nor the Bruins, mentioned the injury before it was announced shortly after Boston lost in the playoffs to the Flyers that the goalie would need surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip.
Obviously, the issue with his hip is a thing of the past and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli can breath easier that Thomas, who carries an annual cap hit of $5 million, still has the ability to be one of the world's best goaltenders.
The law of averages says Thomas has to cool off a bit, but as sharp as he is right now, it will probably take another injury for Rask to win the No. 1 job back.
For Julien, it's a great problem to have. Boston has potentially the league's best goaltending tandem and both netminders get to play in front of a stout defense led by former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. The offense is still less than explosive, but Boston is proving itself as an early favorite to land the East's top seed just as it was two years ago when Thomas won his Vezina.
The NHL season is a long grind, especially for a goalie entering his late 30s and it won't be easy for Thomas to escape this season without getting injured somewhere along the line.
But for Thomas, who once had to prove himself by playing in lesser leagues all around the world, it has to be nice to know that now the biggest roadblock standing between him and NHL success is his own health.