NHL

Bruins' Tim Thomas has had season to remember

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP)

Tim Thomas was too focused on winning the Stanley Cup to look back at what has been one of the most remarkable seasons ever by an NHL goaltender.

When he finally does, it will be with a wide grin.

The Boston Bruins' puck stopper set a modern record with a .938 save percentage in the regular season, eclipsing the mark set by two-time league MVP Dominik Hasek, and is heavily favored to win his second Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.

He was just as good in the playoffs, with a .937 save percentage entering the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night. Win or lose, he is favored for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP - so much so that bookmakers closed betting on it a day early.

Not bad for a 37-year-old who waited nine seasons for his first full-time NHL job, a one-time vagabond who had made peace with the fact his career would end in Finland.

''I'll take some time this summer to reflect and, you know, think about those type of things,'' Thomas said before Game 7, when asked to put his journey in perspective.

''As of right now, the most important goal we've set for ourselves as a team is still not accomplished,'' Thomas said. ''As of right now, all the focus is on that one thing, and I'll try to answer your question better when it's all over.''

The answers could - and one day might - fill a book.

They may be too hard to believe as a movie script.

The path Thomas traveled from third-string junior hockey walk-on to NHL playoff hero is as unique as how he stops pucks. In an era dominated by robotic puck-blocking clones all using the same butterfly style - knees down, legs spread to the sides, torso upright - Thomas thrives with an all-out assault on both the puck and shooters.

''That s one reason why pressure doesn't get to him,'' said Bruins backup Tuukka Rask. ''He just battles and knows when he battles he's at his best, and that's his best ability as a goalie, just go and battle and trust your instincts.''

Teammates have dubbed Thomas' style the ''battle-fly,'' which is fitting since it's one of the main reasons he's had to fight so hard - and wait so long - to make it into the NHL.

At 5-foot-11, Thomas knows he can't rely on size. That's one reason the Michigan native never had a chance in a league looking for bigger blocking goalies (preferably from Quebec, the heart of the butterfly revolution) like 6-foot-3 Canucks stopper Roberto Luongo, who was drafted fourth overall in 1997.

That was the same year Thomas, who was drafted by the Quebec-Colorado franchise 217th in 1994 but never signed, turned pro after an All-American career at the University of Vermont.

By season's end, Thomas had played in the East Coast League, the now-defunct International Hockey League, in Finland, and even for the United States at the World Championships.

Thomas played for nine teams in five leagues in three countries on two continents before taking one last shot at the NHL in 2005.

Coming off an MVP season in Finland during the NHL lockout, Thomas had already moved his family back to Europe for the next season when the Bruins called. He had played four games for the club in 2002-03, during a two-season stint spent mostly with their AHL affiliate.

Andrew Raycroft, then the reigning NHL Rookie of the Year, was holding out for a new contract. Thomas hesitated at first to accept the offer, saying later he ''made peace with the prospect of finishing his career in Finland.

It was ''50-50, he said, but friends and family talked him into one more shot at the NHL.

By the time he got his family back across the Atlantic, Raycroft has signed and Thomas was back in the AHL. But he got a shot later that season, and never looked back, with a .922 career save percentage that is better than Luongo (.919) and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur (.913).

With the NHL opening up offensively out of the lockout, the need to actually make saves went up, and the athletic, acrobatic Thomas was a perfect fit.

''It's necessary to make those desperate saves too, because goalie gear got smaller over the years and now you can't just try to cover the net,'' Rask said. ''You need to have reaction saves too, and he's one of the best at it.

Now, after losing last season to a serious hip injury that rendered him a one-legged goalie and forced him to have offseason surgery, Thomas' first save in Game 7 will set the record for the most stops in a playoff run, eclipsing the mark set by Vancouver's Kirk McLean in 1994. He also has a chance at the marks for most saves and shots in a Stanley Cup finals.

But the only thing that mattered to Thomas is hoisting the trophy.

''This may be the only Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals that I ever have in my career,'' he said. ''When we're in the garage or driveway playing as a kid and you're fantasizing, well, I was Stevie Yzerman, which doesn't make sense for a goalie, but you're saying to yourself, 'Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.' This is really what every kid dreams about.''

Except that when it ends, Thomas will remember the dream. And regardless of whether the Bruins win the Stanley Cup, he will eventually be able to reflect on a season of saves that few would have imagined.

Tagged: Bruins, Canucks, Tim Thomas

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