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Today is a day to celebrate the greatness of Tim Thomas

04.04.09 at 12:09 pm ET
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The Tank playoff beard should be coming in the next couple of weeks

The Tank playoff beard should be coming in the next couple of weeks

There was a great deal of talk about persevering, unorthodox goaltending and his age — he’ll be 35 year of age in a matter of weeks — but Saturday morning was clearly the exact right moment to celebrate the classic American success story that is Tim Thomas.

The B’s goaltender was the son of a salesman growing up in hardscrabble Flint, Michigan — a guy that was never handed anything during his entire career and was taught work ethic and stick-to-itiveness by his parents. Not at the University of Vermont where he became an All-American goaltender, and not later on in the nine stops along his minor league/European odyssey that included stints in both the Finnish and Swedish Elite Leagues along with traditional minor league stops like the ECHL and the defunct Colonial Hockey League. 

It’s about a goaltender that’s fit well within the long, storied tradition of Bruins goaltenders from Tiny Thompson to Andy Moog and Pete Peeters. After recently watching the Original Six History of the Bruins DVD and being reintroduced to so many great B’s goalies from the past, it was clear that Thomas is now up in that pantheon with the rest of the Black and Gold puckstopping legends. The fact that he didn’t crack the NHL until after the age of 30 will just another part of his legendary story.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli admitted that he had a bit of a preconceived idea about Thomas’ ultimate ceiling in terms of talent prior to coming to Boston, but that changed when he saw the netminder’s high-wire acrobatic act between the pipes on a nightly basis. Instead of grading out a goalie that was constantly out of position and seemed to always be scrambling for a recovery, he saw an incredible athlete that could just flat out perform his No. 1 duty guarding the B’s cage: stop the puck.

“When we talk about the Tim Thomas story, we talk about perseverance over a long period of time, we talk about a long journey, and we talk about an unorthodox , hybrid style,” said Chiarelli. “But what sometimes gets lost is his uncanny ability to stop the puck. That’s why we’ve extended him.”

That second impression culminated in a four-year contract for a reported $20 million that Thomas made official on Friday, and talked about along with Chiarelli — the man that was playing point during the long negotiations – on Saturday morning prior to the Bruins/Rangers tilt.

Chiarelli admitted that Thomas’ age (he’ll turn 39 in the final days of the four-year pact) was a consideration, but that two things mitigated his status as a bit of a middle-aged goalie: there are many goalies still close to their puck-stopping primes in their mid-to-late 30′s and Thomas is relatively fresh after not entering the NHL grind until he had already crossed the 30 years-old threshold. In Chiarelli’s eyes, paying all those dues in Europe and the minors are now benefitting the “Tank.”

“I’m very happy to be staying in Boston for the next four years,” said Thomas, who is leading the NHL in Goals Against Average (GAA) of 2.11 and a save percentage of .932 and putting the finishing touches on a Vezina Trophy-worthy season. “With free agency potentially coming up this summer, you think about whether you’d rather play somewhere else or you’d rather stay in Boston. After weighing things over and over, the answer always kept coming back to ‘Boston’.

“I’m very happy that this is done, and I think I’ve done a really good job of just concentrating on hockey throughout the year, even knowing that we’ve had our talks off and on,” added Thomas, who then went out and tossed his 12th career NHL shutout against the Rangers later on Saturday afternoon. “This gives me a 100 percent chance to just focus on hockey and leave the rest of the stuff (behind).”

Chiarelli said that the team faces some difficult decisions to make over the summer when Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Matt Hunwick are all restricted free agents and P.J. Axelsson also finds his contract up. There’s a near certainty that at least one big contract will need to be moved in the summer months amid an uncertain salary cap situation, and Chiarelli didn’t shy away from that part of his managerial duties. There could be a painful trade or two coming down the line because of the salary cap situation, but that’s another story for another day.

Yesterday was about Thomas.

“This is our job,” said Chiarelli. “We have to figure out the puzzle, we have to make decisions. I’d like to sign everyone, but we have to make decisions over the summer and look at the performance of our players. Then we do the math.

“We’ve been doing the math ever since I’ve come here and that’s a large part of the job,” added the B’s decision-maker. “What is important to the organization is that we have terrific goaltending for a long time, and sometimes you have to put side the math — not completely — and make the decisions like we did with Tim.”

Thomas will continue answering all the questions that dog him when the playoffs begin in a matter of weeks, but yesterday was one of those few days when the B’s goalie could kick up his skates and have a little pride at a moment that proved he has truly arrived.

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Thomas: The answer kept coming back Boston

04.04.09 at 9:53 am ET
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The Bruins made it official on Saturday morning by announcing a four-year contract extension for goaltender Tim Thomas, worth a reported $20 million.

Thomas (left) and Chiarelli announce new deal for Bruins netminder.

Thomas (left) and Chiarelli announce new deal for Bruins netminder.

“I’m very happy to be staying in Boston for the next four years knowing that with free agency coming up potentially this summer, you have to think about would you rather go somewhere else or would you rather stay in Boston and after thinking things over, the answer kept coming back, Boston,” Thomas said.

The news conference was held at TD Banknorth Garden, some four hours before Boston’s scheduled matinee with the New York Rangers. If the Bruins win, they clinch the number one seed in the Eastern Conference for the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.

More from Thomas, as he expressed satisfaction while wanting to maintain focus on the season.

“To a certain extent there is,” Thomas said of the satisfaction factor. “To another extent, we’re in the middle of the season, we have a game at one o’clock today so I haven’t really let it sink in. To a certain extent, I’m just going to focus on day-by-day and game-by-game who we’re playing. I think that’s the way to approach this.

“I don’t this is anytime to sit back and pat yourself too much on the back. I think it’s more, ‘Hey, we have a lot more to accomplish that we could accomplish this year.’ And I’m looking forward to making a push at achieving those accomplishments,” he added.

General manager Peter Chiarelli decided to invest a reported $20 million over four years in his goaltender, who
could wind up winning the Vezina Trophy for top netminder in the league.

“What sometimes gets lost in the translation is the uncanny ability to stop the puck,” Chiarelli said of Thomas’ 2.11 goals against and .932 save percentage this season, both of which lead the NHL. “And Tim has shown that with all the other things and that’s why we’ve extended him for a long time and we’re excited to have him on board.

“When we talk about the Tim Thomas story, we talk about perseverance over a long period time, we talk about a long journey and we talk about an unorthodox and hybrid style, so to speak.”

Part of the journey for Thomas includes sacrifice, like giving back half of his signing bonus or $75,000 to the Edmonton Oilers back in 1998 so he could play in Europe, before returning to the NHL and the Bruins for the 2002-03 season.

“That’s a good investment, though,” chimed in Chiarelli. “The rate of return on that is pretty good.”

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Bruins announce Thomas contract, Saturday press conference

04.03.09 at 5:44 pm ET
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The Boston Bruins officially announced the signing of Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas to a multi-year contract this afternoon, and both Thomas and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli will hold a 10 a.m. press conference at the TD Banknorth Garden prior to the Bruins/Rangers afternoon game.

Multiple hockey sources confirmed that the deal is at least three years in length, and will pay the 35-year-old an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $5 million. The Boston Globe reported on Friday that it’s a four-year contract worth a total of $20 million for Thomas. The two-time All-Star goalie is currently the league leader in both Goals Against Average (2.11) and Save Percentage (.932), and is a favorite for the Vezina Trophy. He established a new career high in wins with 33 and has helped lead the Bruins to their first 50-win season since 1992-93.

Thomas’ first words about the new deal are expected to come on Comcast SportsNet’s Mohegan Sun Sports Tonight as the B’s goalie will be a guest with Mike Felger and Gary Tanguay on the early 6:30 p.m. edition of the Friday show.

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A good day for Thomas, but what about the B’s?

04.03.09 at 10:04 am ET
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So Tim Thomas is now in the fold for four more years at roughly $5 million per season.

It’s certainly more than justified on several levels after two straight All-Star seasons and a likely Vezina Trophy-worthy piece of work this winter that’s primed the Killer B’s for a run at the Cup. The 34-year-old goaltender is, after all, a rousing success story after kicking around anonymous hockey spots like the unforgettable Detroit Vipers of the IHL and Karpat in the Finnish Elite League.  Thomas spent more than five years riding buses and team-hopping before finally getting his “shot” with a Boston Bruins club that wasn’t much more than a pile of hockey wreckage in 2005-06. Thomas flourished amid a generally lousy situation, though, and he hasn’t looked back while entertaining Bruins Nation with his athletic, unyielding , original style between the pipes. Thomas is a blue collar Flint, Michigan product through and through, and he fits the Big, Bad B’s mold to a ‘T’.

But there’s obviously a big ”but” in there, and we ain’t talkin’ the Larry Fitzgerald kind either.

In the brave new salary cap world of the NHL it is dangerous to dole out big cap numbers to players based primarily on past performance rather than future yield, and Thomas is approaching his 35th birthday this month. That seems to have been the impetus behind the deal, as inking it before his April 15 birthday allows the Bruins to potentially buy out the pact if Thomas suffers a serious decline in performance over the next three seasons – or suffers a chronic injury that saps away at his ability to function as the franchise-type goaltender he’s now being paid to be.

Many ”hockey pundits”, myself included, thought that something in the $3-4 million range was reasonable and good value for a soon-to-be 35-year netminder that’s finally found a home — and a payday — after essentially serving as the posterboy for the “Have Pads, Will Travel” set over the last decade.  But a three-year deal in the $5 mill per annum range blows that “good value” figure out of the water, and puts Thomas in some pretty rarefied air within the world of goaltenders. Thomas will have to continue performing at an elite level until he’s 38 years-old to “earn” the cap hit.

Thomas is now much more than a simple rousing underdog story after packing up and moving into the same neighborhood as puckstopping elite like 32-year-old Mikka Kiprusoff ($5.8 per year), 33-year-old Marty Turco ($5.7 per year). 32-year-old Tomas Vokoun ($5.7 per year), 36-year-old Martin Brodeur ($5.2 per year) and 33-year-old Evgeny Nabokov ($5.3 per year). All perennial All-Star goaltenders in their thirties, and all of them without highly-paid, touted backups like Tuukka Rask  waiting in the wings. $5 million goalies don’t need highly paid backups and certainly don’t split time with their understudy, and a hockey team really can’t function fiscally with two moneybag netminders clogging up the cash flow.

So while Thomas now has the fiscal security and job guarantee that he’s never before enjoyed in his multi-uniformed hockey career, the contact extension raises as many questions as it does answers with regard to the post-playoff run Bruins of next year.

Thomas and Manny Fernandez combined to earn roughly $5.3 million this season as a goaltending duo, and it was expected that the B’s might be able to save and scrimp on their goaltending account going forward with so many pivotal contract questions heading into the offseason. The current $56.7 salary cap is expected to decrease by more than $2 million next season, and now the Bruins potentially have as much as $8 million plus tied up into goaltenders next season if both Thomas and Rask ($3.25 million if he hits all contract bonuses) are suited up in Spoked B sweaters and on the books.

Simply put, you can’t sink that kind of money into goaltending and then hope to sign restricted free agents like Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Matt Hunwick — and keep the current Cup-worthy team intact for another run at it again next season.

Something has to give.

This is why Phil Kessel’s name was mentioned in trade discussions prior to the March trade deadline, and this is why you’ll hear some shocking names — those of Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew most assuredly — available this summer before salary cap hell commences over the next two seasons. It’s also why you may hear Rask’s name enter the trade talk fray with restricted free agency approaching after next season, and the B’s now making a pretty ironclad commitment to Thomas.

It’s not a given that — given the salary cap climate and the current state of both the American and Canadian economy — Thomas would have received a three-year, $5 million plus offer out on the open market — a place where it appears that a market correction may be in the offing as it was in the world of baseball this offseason. If the B’s had waited until this summer, it’s possible that they could have saved themselves as much as a million on the all-important salary cap hit.

Instead the Bruins locked in the Tank and have chosen their franchise goaltender for the foreseeable future. The question now is: What is the team around him going to look like beginning next season follwing this spring’s blissful playoff run?

It ultimately might not be an answer that Bruins Nation wants to hear.

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Bruins find their identity in character-shaping win streak

04.02.09 at 10:47 pm ET
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Tim Thomas stumbled on a telling statement following the Bruins’ gut-wrenching loss to the Los Angeles Kings back on March 19 — a crunching blown-lead defeat that lingered right at the tail end of Boston’s spring swoon.

The Black and Gold goaltender lamented teams didn’t seem to fear the Bruins anymore, and opponents were playing without fear that the suddenly-shrinking B’s would strike out against them — or even push back for that matter.

Well, two weeks later it seems that opponents should again be afraid of the Spoked B. Very afraid.

The swagger of the Spoked B has resumed, and the intimidation factor is back in Boston’s game. After a first period that wasn’t quite Big Bad vintage, the Black and Gold skaters turned up the bodycheck counts and grinded their way to a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators Thursday night at the TD Banknorth Garden.

“We’re getting that confidence back that we lacked a few weeks ago when we struggled,” said Marc Savard, who tallied the game-winner after some great line work by Blake Wheeler and P.J. Axelsson. “There’s a swagger that we had earlier in the year. We didn’t talk, but we just went out on the ice and (performed). We were confident out on the ice. I think we’re getting back to that.”

During the current five-game winning stretch that has them on the precipice of clinching the top Eastern Conference seed, the battling Bruins have engaged in games where they’ve again readily dropped the gloves. Fights or no fights, each of the winning efforts has been characterized with oversized bodies like Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic establishing both their bigness and badness while hammering would-be aggressors to the ice. The B’s skaters are again fearlessly speeding hard into suffocating forechecks and disrupting breakouts with pounding pressure to opposing D.

Run the goaltender and you invite the risk of having 6-foot-9 and 261-pounds worth of angry Slovakian crashing directly into your kitchen. Step into the always treacherous corner to retrieve a puck and look both ways before a freight train forechecker with the kamikaze abandon of Chuck Kobasew comes bombing in without any slowdown. Throw a shove or a face wash at prized scorers like Savard or David Krejci, and then freeze with paralyzed fear as Lucic rains down haymakers for the transgression.

It’s the Greatest Show on Ice, and it’s back at the Garden with a healthy helping of playoff snarl.

“It’s always fun,” said Lucic. “It makes the game that much greater when it gets physical like that. For me I thrive on physical games like this, and it’s going to be like this from here on in.”

These are the kinds things that happened with clockwork-like regularity while the Bruins were racking up wins in the first half of the season, and it’s exactly what snapped back into focus during their current five-game winning streak — a stretch of good fortune that has many again believing in the postseason power of the Big, Bad B.

“(The physicality) is what got us to where we were before we struggled a little bit,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “You’ve got to find your identity again, and that’s what we did.  We found our identity.”

P.J. Axelsson, for goodness sake, even got his Swedish blood boiling on Thursday night when Jarkko Ruutu skated in and rammed Thomas while the B’s goaltender was attempting to maneuver for a save. Axelsson witnessed someone taking a liberty with his goalie, and opted to take matters into his own hands by hopping off his skates and crashing down on Ruutu with the all the force his spindly Swedish body could muster.

It all files under the heading of the “being hard to play against” mandate that Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli put into place when he took over a beleaguered hockey franchise three short seasons ago, and Big, Bad “hard to play against” hockey club has again entered the Causeway Street building just in time to make a run at the elusive Cup.

It’s a delicate balance having that on-ice swagger that nobody will beat you or push you around while maintaining the hunger and humility needed to climb Mt. Stanley, but it’s something Julien sees in his hockey club — and it’s something he really likes with only five games remaining in the regular season.

“That swagger and that confidence is something that is showing by our play, but I think our players are very modest,” said Julien. “They know that things are great one day and this is a very humbling game, and that tomorrow could be different. We’ve seen that numerous times, either with our team or with other teams. We’re a grounded team. I think that’s what we like about our crew is that we’re pretty grounded. We don’t get carried away with too much.”

The Big Bad Bruin identity is intact and thriving again in the final month of the regular season, and it shouldn’t be going anywhere with nothing but big games on the hockey horizon.

Injury Ward: Phil Kessel and Shawn Thornton were both out with undisclosed injuries, and Steve Montador was a healthy scratch for the Bruins. Shane Hnidy was back in and Matt Hunwick was pushed up to forward as a result, and moves like this to get everyone’s juices flowing might regular occurrences over the last few regular season games.

Player of the Game: Patrice Bergeron was active all game-long with a team-high six shots on net, but it was appropriate that Savard banged home the game-winner in this one. Savard finished with five shots on net, and dominated the dot with seven out of 10 faceoff wins.

Goat Horns: The team didn’t have much jump or aggression during a sleepy first period, but the lull was addressed as the intensity picked up over the final 40 minutes. Finishing strong is seemingly no longer a problem for the energized Bruins.

Turning Point: A great shift by the Bruins set up the winning goal. Wheeler hemmed in the Ottawa defenseman withan aggressive, in-your-face forecheck and Brendan Bell followed with a weak turnover that ended up on Axelsson’s stick. The sweet Swede fed it right to Savard in the right faceoff circle, and the B’s center ripped away for his 24th goal of the season. A perfect example of all three following “the system” and working in concert together.

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Sounds of the game… Bruins 2, Senators 1

04.02.09 at 10:32 pm ET
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The Bruins have won 50 games in an NHL season for the first time since the 1992-93 season, when Cam Neely, Ray Bourque and Adam Oates led them to 51 wins and 109 points.

“Everybody’s different,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “I’m not big on those things.  It’s great.  I’m not saying anything negative about it, just that it’s a win tonight, and another step towards hopefully clinching the conference.”

Maybe the reason for Julien’s cautious approach is what every hockey coach of a high seed fears at this time of year. The team that gets a hot goalie and rides them to a first-round shocking upset. Oh, say, like the 1993 Buffalo Sabres.

What Bruins fans don’t want to remember about that campaign but can’t forget is how it ended — a shocking first-round four-game sweep at the hands of the Sabres. Done in four after a glorious regular season. But still, that didn’t keep some of the key Bruins from reflecting on how far this team has come after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons in ’05-’06 and ’06-’07.

Julien took over for the 2007-08 season and suddenly things changed on Causeway.

“You’re walking into a situation where it had been a tough year the year before, and there had been a lot of changes made, and our goal was to bring in some young players and give them a chance to blend in and build around the core veterans that we had,” Julien said. “We knew there would be some growing pains, but again, I don’t think anybody probably thought that we would be in this position this quickly, but we’ll certainly take it.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Savard nets the game-winner in a 2-1 final over the Sens

04.02.09 at 8:04 pm ET
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16:58: Compelling evidence by P.J. Axelsson is skating with Savard and Wheeler. Axy steals a lazy pass from a Sens D-man and finds Savard streaking to the net. Savard lets it rip from the right faceoff circle and beats Auld top shelf with a wrister. Then Savard does his “scoop the ice” with the glove celebratory move followed by an Ovechkin-like bump into the glass above the boards.

Don Cherry would not approve.

12:51: Chris Campoli just tried to separate a rushing Zdeno Chara from the puck at the Sens blue line. After getting thrown to the ice by Big Chara, something tells me he won’t be attempting it again.

9:07: Quick little dust-up between Chara and Nick Foligno. No penalties and it was separated after each got a quick parting shot in. Chara is definitely channeling some playoff snarl in the last few games.

1:55: High-stick on Mark Recchi. Sens will be on PP to end the game. We may see the always exciting 6-on-4 advantage in the final minute of the game here.

1:15: Acrobatic ballet move by Thomas to leap out of the way as an Aldredsson shot from the side angle came speeding through the crease. Thomas was just looking to get out of the way and keep a bad bounce from pin-balling back into the net.

The B’s take their fifth straight victory with a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators at the Garden.

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