The life of a goaltender in the NHL, where you're only as good as your last game, is inherently unfair -- call it the curse of the hot hand. Nobody knows this better than Tim Thomas, the Bruins' netminder who won the Vezina Trophy two seasons ago, but rode the bench last spring as 23-year-old rookie Tuukka Rask led Boston to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The low point for Thomas came when he endured a brutal 1--8 stretch heading into the Olympic break. In his first game back, the discomfort in his hip turned into more overt pain when, he says, he tweaked it during a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Thomas went on to start just eight of the Bruins' final 22 games. Says the former minor-league journeyman, who had to wait until he was 31 for his rookie season in 2005--06, "You get some benefit of the doubt if you build up some credit after a while, but it doesn't last very long. I figured that out."
But now, five months after offseason hip surgery, Thomas has regained his Vezina-winning form and his confidence. As of this writing, he'd won his first seven starts and was leading the NHL with a .977 save percentage and an otherworldly 0.72 GAA. In a 4-0 win over the Senators in Ottawa on Oct. 30 -- his second straight shutout, and third of the season -- Thomas tracked the puck well, scrambled effectively and stoned Jason Spezza with a split save late in the second period.
"If anything, I see an even better Tim Thomas when it comes to handling those rebounds and controlling them," says Bruins coach Claude Julien.
The benefit of the doubt belongs to Thomas once more.
Two years ago, Thomas had been told by his yoga instructor that there was a lack of mobility in his left hip. Thomas ignored the nagging pain, which, as it worsened -- his surgery last May repaired a torn labrum -- caused him to subconsciously alter his game. He adopted a one-legged butterfly style and often favored his right leg to stand up.
"I didn't realize the restrictions it was causing in my movement and the bad habits it had been causing," he says. "It affected my flexibility and my scrambling ability, which is part of what got me [to the NHL]."
The resurgence of the 36-year-old netminder now presents the Bruins with an enviable dilemma. "This is the problem you like to have," says general manager Peter Chiarelli. Rask, who led the NHL last season in save percentage (.931) and GAA (1.97), had made only two appearances and failed to earn a win, but it stands to reason that it's just a matter of time before he again challenges Thomas for the top spot.
Julien insists that he is not worried about a brewing goaltender controversy. "The focus is on [winning the Stanley Cup], and they're willing to sacrifice a little bit of their own time in net to accomplish that," he says. "Tuukka even said to me [last week], 'As long as [Thomas] keeps performing like that, I have no issues with whatever decision you make, coach.'"
Chiarelli considered moving Thomas and his $5 million salary over the summer, but now says, "We have two of the best goalies in the league here, so no one's going anywhere."
There is precedent for this sort of arrangement in the new NHL, where it's no longer necessary to rely on a single dominant goaltender. Just ask the Blackhawks. Thomas, though, is merely content to feel like his old self again.
"Playing without pain is making it a lot more fun," he says. "So is the success."