Tim Thomas cemented himself as a Boston Bruins legend during his seven-plus seasons in Beantown, winning the Vezina Trophy twice and helping the franchise end a 39-year Stanley Cup drought in 2011.
His controversial and tumultuous exit hasn’t prevented him from thinking fondly of his time with the Bruins, and he’s expected to make his first start as a visitor in Boston with the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
Thomas won the Vezina in 2008-09 and again in 2010-11, when he backstopped the Bruins to their first championship since 1972. The netminder, though, opted not to attend a team celebration at the White House the following season due to political reasons.
After Boston was eliminated in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Thomas announced he would be taking a one-year leave of absence to spend more time with his family.
"I never had anyone say anything negative to my face. That was all in the media," Thomas said. "All I got was tons of support."
The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals behind Tuukka Rask with Thomas on hiatus, though the veteran said he has no regrets. Boston traded Thomas’ contract to the New York Islanders in a salary-cap move last season, and he latched on with Florida during the offseason.
"Of course it crossed my mind, but I was more just happy to see the success they were having and happy to see Tuukka have success," Thomas said. "I knew he was a great goalie and I knew when I made my decision I was leaving the team in very strong hands."
While Rask is shining with a 2.08 goals-against average for Atlantic Division-leading Boston (33-15-3), Thomas has struggled at times for the young Panthers (21-24-7).
Thomas, though, improved to 8-4-2 with a 2.29 GAA in his last 14 starts with Sunday’s 5-4 shootout win over Detroit. Florida has won three of four.
"He’s been great for our club," interim coach Peter Horachek said. "He makes big saves, he’s competitive. His personality allows guys to settle down a little bit. He’s been really good for us."
Horachek said Thomas hasn’t let on that this contest means more than any other, but he’s sure his goaltender has some fond memories of TD Garden.
"You win in a place and you win with certain members of the other team, there’s always a connection that never goes away," Horachek said.
Thomas didn’t play in Florida’s 4-1 loss at Boston on Nov. 7 after making 37 saves against his former team in a 3-2 home defeat Oct. 17. Rask won both contests, making 27 saves in the first and 23 in the second.
Rask will be in net for this meeting after backup Chad Johnson made 34 saves in Monday’s 6-3 win over the Islanders. Zdeno Chara’s goal marked his 500th NHL point, and Brad Marchand had a goal and three assists for the Bruins, who are 3-0-1 in their last four.
Marchand has seven goals and five assists over the last five contests.
"We’re expected to do a job out there,” Marchand said of a line that includes Patrice Bergeron and Reilly Smith. ”We got contributions from every line. That’s how we win games and what makes us so tough to play against.”
It’s unclear if the Panthers, losers of five straight to the Bruins, will have rookie Aleksander Barkov in the lineup after he missed Sunday’s contest with a lower-body injury.