Thomas' play a thing of beauty for B's
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
In a Stanley Cup Finals dominated by finger biting, knockout blows and rabbit punches on the ice — and hurt feelings off it — it was only fitting that a self-described "rat" would have the biggest impact on the deciding game.
In a sport that has long cherished will over skill, and in a league that allows the latter to be increasingly suffocated by the former the deeper it gets into its playoffs, it felt right that Tim Thomas, a 37-year-old goaltender who had given up on the NHL six years ago, finished as the best player in the postseason, a reward for reducing the most powerful offense, and best power play of the regular season, to whimpering wrecks.
Yes, it was easy to celebrate Bruins forward Nathan Horton, knocked out by a late hit in Game 3, returning to the ice after the game in full gear — after sprinkling it with water from Boston's TD Garden hours before — to hoist the Cup. But perhaps it was too easy to forget Canucks winger Mason Raymond, who made it back to Vancouver from a Boston hospital in time for Game 7. He saluted the crowd while wearing a plastic cast around his torso but is still facing three to four months or rehab after suffering a vertebrae compression fracture when he was ridden awkwardly into the end boards 20 seconds into Game 6.
In the end, though, the skill of Brad Marchand finally trumped his agitating of Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, which included using the latter's head as a speed bag in the final minutes of a Game 6 in which Marchand opened the scoring.
In the end, the athletic saves of Thomas rose above the ugliness of a defense-first Finals dominated by Boston's collapse-to-the-net mentality. At least Thomas, who was handed the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after giving up just eight goals in seven games, provided a warm and fuzzy ending to a series that included a serious concussion and a broken back.
That's because Thomas, who made peace with his career ending in Finland before friends and family talked him into one last shot at the NHL in 2005, is just so hard not to like. He is the little goalie that could, a 5-foot-11 acrobat who was shunned by the NHL during an era of overstuffed, drop-and-block butterfly specialists, only to set new save standards and coin a new phrase as hockey's first "battle-fly" goalie, attacking pucks and players with equal fervor.
So self-deprecating was Thomas that minutes after saying the Cup was "surreal" and "it really hadn't sunk in yet," he was already wondering how much rope it might get him next season. But what else would you expect from a goalie who played for nine teams in five leagues in three countries on two continents before finally giving in to requests from loved ones to take one last crack at the NHL?
"Everybody knows in this game that you have to continuously prove yourself," Thomas said. "I'm sure if I were to, for example, start out the season bad next year that I probably, with the Cup, would have bought myself a little bit of leeway, but it won't last forever unless I turn my game around."
How can you not cheer for a guy who used to hunt bears with a bow and arrow — but also used yoga to delay surgery on a hip labrum so badly torn he played all of last season on one leg? Especially when he stops 238 of 246 shots in the Cup Finals for an otherworldly .967 save percentage, finishing the playoffs with a .940 mark, just slightly better than his record-setting regular-season mark. And to top it all off, Thomas became the oldest winner of the Conn Smythe.
"That just means I'm old," he said. "But it's something I can be proud of the rest of my life. A year and two weeks ago today, I was just coming out of hip surgery, so it's been a long road, but it's been a phenomenal road."
It's also been phenomenally entertaining from Thomas, on and off the ice. All of which makes him the polar opposite of the Canucks, who somehow came into the playoffs as an entertaining, high-octane team only to be branded hockey's most hated by the time they ended. That their supposedly reformed agitator, Alex Burrows, started it off by nibbling Patrice Bergeron's gloved fingers certainly didn't help. Nor did antagonist Maxim Lapierre mocking Bergeron by offering his fingers the next game, or dropping as if he'd been shot with even the hint of contact, a reputation that was transferred, often unfairly, to the Sedins.
And it didn't get any easier when Vancouver's star goalie, Roberto Luongo, dared badmouth the untouchable Thomas, following up an innocuous style comparison badly blown out of proportion by the Boston media with an even more inflammatory complaint about his counterpart.
Marchand was in the middle of it too, dusting his hands as he skated by the Canucks bench after pulling off a hat trick of penalties — roughing, holding and tripping — to end his Game 4 early, and finishing Game 6 with seven consecutive gloved punches to Daniel Sedin's cheek. All of which made his three-point effort in the decisive Game 7 so much more irritating for Canucks fans — it was easy to imagine them picturing the impressive rookie's oversized nose as they overturned cars and set them on fire during the riots that started soon after respected veteran Mark Recchi called mentoring Marchand one of the highlights of what was his last season, hanging them up after lifting a third Stanley Cup.
In the end, though, Marchand showed he could be that perfect blend of will and skill, the kind of grit-and-goal double threat that makes playoff heroes and leaves the regular-season celebrities hanging their bruised heads in defeat.
He set up the crucial first goal Wednesday — the team that scored it won every game in the series — and scored two more, finishing the playoffs with a Bruins rookie-record 11 goals, second only to Dino Ciccarelli's record 14 with the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. Marchand also combined with Patrice Bergeron, the vastly underrated two-way pivot who also scored twice, Recchi, and 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara to shut down the Sedins, who finished with five points and were minus-4 in Game 7.
Not that the twins are alone in that regard in the NHL's championship series.
In last year's Cup Finals, Chicago's Conn Smythe-winning captain Jonathan Toews had three assists and was a minus-5 in six games. Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby had one goal, two assists and was a minus-3 in seven games when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009. Detroit starts Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have combined for just five goals in 22 games in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"We had to shut them down, and everyone showed up and shut them down, and Timmy did an unbelievable job in nets," Marchand said. "Everyone had a role to play and played it to a T, and I was able to get a couple of goals, too."
Over time the goals and the goaltender will be remembered, and the rest easily forgotten. Except in Vancouver.