Saying Tim Thomas is the Bruins MVP is just stating the obvious. He has been the backbone of this team and arguably the sole reason they’re not hanging out with Toronto for draft picks. But how much is the safety net of Thomas affecting the Bruins?
A rejuvenated and healthy Tim Thomas has taken the league by storm and is one of hockey’s biggest surprises so far this season, mostly to those who have not followed Thomas’ career. When Thomas started the season on a tear, many just assumed the Bruins 36-year old goaltender was simply on a hot streak and that he would inevitably cool off. Thirty-four games into the season, Thomas is still setting the standard for goalie excellence.
Unlike Thomas, the Bruins as a whole have been less than stellar. Early in the season they looked like an Eastern Conference powerhouse before seemingly losing motivation and playing like they would love a draft lottery pick. The question for the Bruins is whether or not the early season Bruins were that strong or was Tim Thomas simply masking their deficiencies?
Boston has been a strong defensive team overall, a point that cannot really be argued despite the fact that Thomas has a penchant for bailing them out when things go wrong. But what if the team we are seeing now is relying too much on their goaltending safety and taking too many games off knowing Thomas will likely bail them out?
Boston currently sits 3rd in the weak Eastern Conference, gaining the division lead after a shootout victory over the Panthers that Thomas stole. The passionless, listless Bruins seem to be in good shape despite their struggles, but what if they simply had an “average” goalie in net and did not have Thomas to bail them out?
Perhaps that is what we are seeing when Tuukka Rask is in net. That is not to imply that Rask is an average goaltender, as the young goalie has received very little support when he has started this season. However, Rask has not been given the opportunity to string multiple starts together and get in a rhythm. When Rask starts a game he is essentially cold, which can be equivalent to being “average” under these circumstances.
Rask has played in ten games this season, starting nine and losing seven in regulation and one in a shootout. He has been the victim of some of the worst games the Bruins have played this season but unlike Thomas, who gets regular starts, Rask has often been unable to pull out a victory for his listless team.
Out of his nine starts, Rask and the Bruins have let up three or more goals six times, losing all six of those games. After a pitiful first two periods by the Bruins on November 5th against Washington, Rask relieved Thomas in the third, presumably to get some reps before his start the following night against the Blues.
Unfortunately for Rask the Bruins came storming back and tied the Capitals 3-3 before ultimately losing, giving Rask another loss in the process. Rask stopped twelve of thirteen shots in that period and when the puck dropped the following night Rask looked exceptionally sharp.
He battled Jaroslav Halak in an intriguing goalie duel, allowing just one regulation goal before the Bruins fell 2-1 in a shootout. While Halak was certainly spectacular that night, the Bruins effort and commitment was not 100% there and Rask was again the victim of another tough loss.
Rask’s two wins came on November 18th against the Panthers and December 9th against the Islanders. Against the Panthers, the Bruins played one of their best periods of hockey in the third on their way to a 4-0 win in a game Rask kept them in until they started playing hard.
Boston’s 5-2 win over the Islanders was closer than the score indicated. A lazy Boston squad let the Islanders hang around much longer than they should have before Rick Dipietro finally caved and the Bruins mounted their assault. A better, more skilled team may have taken advantage of the Bruins lifelessness, but luckily for Rask he escaped with a victory.
That is precisely the problem with the Bruins. If their goalies have an average night or make a mistake or two, they often do not have the ability to fight through the game or play hard enough to claw their way to victory. Simply compare a “cold” Tuukka Rask’s 2010-11 season resume to Tim Thomas, a goalie who is motivated but also getting regular starts.
Thomas’ 2010-11 season resume is incredible and shows just how much he has meant to the Bruins this season. The unorthodox but highly effective goaltender sports a 17-4-3 record with a goals against average of 1.68 and a save percentage of .949, stats that surpass his season ending line in 2008-09 when he won the Vezina.
Six times this season Thomas has let up more than two goals and five of those games the Bruins have lost, with the one victory, a 7-4 comeback, coming against Pittsburgh in a game that saw the Penguins collapse during a time they were playing some fairly awful hockey.
When Thomas is off his game, or just happens to not make those seemingly impossible saves he loves making, the Bruins tank, often unable to muster enough offense or effort to help out their goalie. Great teams can survive spells of average goaltending or bad bounces but Boston seems to fold when the net is not locked down like Fort Knox.
Three of Thomas’ losses have come in games where he has let up just two goals. Boston lost 2-0 November 13th to Ottawa, 3-2 in a shootout December 4th to Toronto and 2-1 in overtime December 11th against Philadelphia. Thomas faced 106 shots in those three losses, doing his best to steal games for a team that just could not light the lamp enough to earn a victory, despite Thomas’ best efforts.
In three out of four of Thomas’ regulation losses his team has failed to score a single goal. Teams do get shutout but that fact is more a testament to Boston’s poor play in those games than simply meeting a hot goalie. On the other side, five of Thomas’ seventeen victories have been shutouts, his most impressive in a 3-0, 41 save victory over the Flyers on December 1st. Thomas still seems to shine even when his team is dull.
Sixteen times this season Thomas has faced over thirty shots and has come out with a 12-2-2 record. Ten times he has faced over thirty-five shots and is still stellar with a 8-1-1 record. That one stat highlights just how key Thomas has been to the Bruins…when he is under fire most is when he is at his best. Thomas is literally stealing games his team would have no right winning otherwise, his super human efforts keeping the Bruins relevant in the early playoff picture. If Thomas is off his game in these type of starts, Boston is looking at embarrassing losses rather than squeaking out wins.
Saying a team is only as good as their goalie is somewhat of a “duh” statement but what Tim Thomas is doing for the Bruins this season makes his $5 million cap hit look like a bargain. Those clamoring for his trade prior to the season are likely eating the biggest plate of crow they have ever seen.
The Bruins are not a bad team by any means but what they are is a team that has trouble giving a consistent effort and perhaps relies too much on the human highlight reel known as Tim Thomas. His teammates seem to know he will have their back when they flounder and have sat back way too often while Thomas has gone out and taken care of business.
Boston had a great game in a 4-1 win over Atlanta, showing what this team could look like if they provide support, but is this a team that can really beat teams like Pittsburgh or Washington in a seven game playoff series if they don’t bring their game every night and rely just on Thomas to carry them to a Stanley Cup berth? How long can Thomas continue to save the Bruins if they fall back into their lazy habits?
The Bruins have shown, in spurts, how great they can be if they are giving maximum effort in front of Thomas but perhaps they need to sit down and think about where they would be without him. It is hard to answer a series of “What If” questions given the fact that it is impossible to know for sure what the answer would be.
But what if the Bruins didn’t have Thomas? What if Rask was starting every game and suffering a sophomore slump? What if the Bruins had a goalie that is showing his age, like Giguere? Or a young goalie struggling to find himself, like Steve Mason? Would the Bruins still be fighting for a division lead or battling the Islanders, Leafs and Devils for prime real estate in the basement of the Eastern Conference?
With the type of effort Boston has given, on average, this season the answer would likely be the latter. You probably will not hear Tim Thomas brag or boast about his game stealing antics but without him Boston’s win column could look ugly. Maybe once the Bruins stop relying solely on Thomas to steal games, the rest of us will see what type of team the Bruins truly are.
At times the Bruins have looked like a team that could be a serious Stanley Cup contender but if they continue to sit back, however, and let opposing teams wear Thomas down with night after night of facing over thirty shots and offer no support to their goaltending dynamo, another early playoff exit is likely the best scenario one can expect from this Boston team.