By Mike Miccoli, Boston Bruins correspondent
At the All-Star break, Tim Thomas was a lock for the Vezina Trophy. If you spoke to a few more hockey pundits, they’d tell you why his name should belong in talks for the NHL’s Hart Trophy for most valuable player.
And why not, really? When Thomas was in net, the Boston Bruins were a better team.
Thomas was carrying a 24-5-6 record along with an unearthly goals-against-average of 1.85 and a .943 save percentage, two categories that to this day he still leads the league in. His seven shutouts put him in a tie for league best with Henrik Lundqvist and had already marked a career high for Thomas, set in only his 31st start of the season.
To say that the 36-year old was having a brilliant season may have been an understatement.
However during the Bruins’ recent four-game losing streak, some of Thomas’ flaws became more noticeable. Thomas, in net for three of those four losses, allowed a few soft goals reminiscent of gaffs in years past. The ‘wow’ factor was still there for Thomas, as were the big-time saves, but the smaller shots seemed to be the ones trickling in.
In Thomas’ last three starts, there have definitely been some noticeable mental errors. We saw it against Pittsburgh in overtime. After a turnover by Dennis Seidenberg, Dustin Jeffrey advanced alone down the slot and slipped the puck passed an already-down Thomas to win the game. In his next start against Buffalo, Thomas came out a bit too far to challenge the Sabres’ Tyler Ennis in overtime. After Ennis’ shot, Thomas was out of position enough to provide Brad Boyes with an empty-net rebound winning the game for Buffalo.
The next night in Long Island, Thomas looked tired against the New York Islanders. Thomas allowed three goals in the span of six-minutes between the 2nd and 3rd periods where the Islanders erased a two-goal lead by the Bruins, the B’s first regulation loss in 26 games after leading by two. Sure the defense looked out of sync and inexperienced against an up and coming Islanders team, but excuses are tough to defend on a losing bender against a team inferior to Boston’s. Thomas was first beat on a wraparound by Matt Moulson, followed by Michael Grabner popping in a loose rebound that Thomas loss control of and a final softie from Jack Hillen that clinched the win for the Islanders.
Each of these games came almost a month after Thomas allowed a season-high six goals in an emotional win against the Montreal Canadiens at home; a game where defense was pretty much secondary, anyway.
Thomas has slipped a bit after the All-Star break and the numbers don’t lie. In 12 games played, Thomas has a 5-4-2 record with a 2.74 goals-against-average and a .918 save percentage—pedestrian statistics after you look at Thomas’ stellar first half of the season. Thomas has yet to shutout a team since the break and has allowed 31 goals, close to half of the amount (65) allowed in his first 36 games played.
Maybe it’s just a slump for Thomas. The Bruins netminder was hot in late February/early March earning three straight wins against the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and the Tampa Bay Lightning while only allowing a goal in each game. The recent losses do magnify whatever problems there might be for the goalie. The mission, however, is clear for him and his team: Thomas must finish the season strong, especially with potential opponents in the Vezina race (and perhaps in the playoffs), playing so well.
Since the break, Montreal’s Carey Price has been the most impressive. THW colleague Steven Hindle points this out in a column from Monday.
Price’s record since the All-Star break in 16 games is 9-6-1 with a 2.08 G.A.A. and a .934 save percentage. Price also leads the league with 33 wins (he’s played in 59 games, 13 more than Thomas) and is second in the NHL with eight shutouts, one less than Thomas. Overall, his .924 save percentage and 2.29 G.A.A. is less than Thomas’, but the two on-ice rivals should both be in the discussion for top goaltender in the league, if not ultimately finishing one-and-two, one way or the other.
If Thomas is able to put the past few games behind him and return to his form from earlier in the season, he should be able to finish the season on a high-note, both for himself and for the Bruins.