SUNRISE, Fla. — For a game worth only two points in the standings, Tim Thomas wanted this win.
Maybe not as much as the victory which earned him a Stanley Cup.
But he still wanted one Thursday.
Moments after falling 3-2 to the Boston Bruins, his former team, since returning from a year-long sabbatical, the Florida Panthers netminder sat in his stall, holding back emotions.
Composing himself, he clinched a towel in his mouth, his face pink as he gritted his teeth. When the 39-year-old spoke, there were pauses between thoughts. The goalie’s mind seemed stuck on that last shot, that last goal.
“It just hurts the way it ended up,” Thomas said, his voice wavering. “I really wanted the guys in front of me to be rewarded after coming back and playing a better second and third period after we started out.”
The Panthers allowed two first-period goals but rallied for their teammate.
Kris Versteeg, demoted to the fourth line after lackluster play in the first period, redeemed himself with a goal during a delayed penalty in the second period. The winger corralled a pass in the right faceoff circle and wristed it past Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask as Tomas Kopecky provided a screen.
With six minutes left in the third period, Jesse Winchester took advantage of a Rask flub, knocking in the puck as the goalie lifted his glove to just see if it was there. With red jerseys huddled in celebration at the far end of the ice, Thomas stood alone in his crease, emotionless, calmly leaning one arm against the crossbar.
Thomas played a role in the effort as well, stopping 37 shots.
But only the last shot mattered.
With 59 seconds left in regulation, a wobbling shot by Boston’s Reilly Smith squirted between Thomas’ pads. The goalie turned, watched the puck slide across the goal line and collapsed forward onto the ice.
All defenseman Mike Weaver could do in support after the score was skate past the veteran and give a tap on the pads.
“After every goal, you’ve got to go over,” Weaver said.
Thomas called Smith’s goal a “changeup.” He could have easily deemed it a heartbreaker.
“The way his stick was angled, the way the puck went up, it kind of wasn’t laying exactly flat,” Thomas said. “I thought he was going high blocker with it. It was enough to get me to move my stick away and open up and get me to take away that upper blocker and that was … a tough one.”
The Panthers wanted this one, too. They wanted it for their teammate and team.
There was no getting around the build-up leading to Thomas’ match against Boston. An unknown person posted on Florida’s official Twitter feed Thomas would face the Bruins — Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen even noted it was the first time someone else besides him made an announcement which goaltender would start.
“After the ride he went on with Boston, anyone who says it’s just another game, it definitely isn’t,” Versteeg said.
A different outcome could have shifted momentum in favor of the Cats, who dropped to 2-6 in the Atlantic Division and have lost three in a row. A win, as Dineen pointed out before Thursday’s contest, would put Florida right in the middle of the pack.
A sluggish first period. Not enough scoring chances. Trouble in the faceoff circle. There is a lot Dineen can dissect — “Is that the difference in the hockey game?” — but right now, there is just hurt.
“There’s lots of stinging tonight,” he said. “There’s nothing to say right now.”
Dealing with the build-up — and letdown — around Thomas’ first meeting against his former team, at least, is over. Now Florida can get back to normal.
And as painful as the loss may have been for Thomas and the Panthers, it was still only two points.