Thomas has never compromised his aggression, not even during the finals. As the series went on, the Canucks often made extra lateral passes in an attempt to catch him out of position or stood behind him when he'd leave his crease, trying to create contact and draw penalties. Such tactics worked just once, on Maxim Lapierre's winning goal from the lower left slot in Game 5, when Thomas was caught ranging too far in the opposite direction. But by Game 7 he had seemingly rented a room inside Vancouver's collective psyche. "We can have a plan," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who had only one point in the series, "but you always underestimate how quick he recovers." Even after Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo criticized Thomas, saying he'd have made the save on Lapierre because his own butterfly style kept him farther back in his crease, Thomas didn't waver. When Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows encroached on his space, Thomas slashed him on the leg and wrestled him to the ice. When a puck popped in front of Sedin, Thomas floored the center with a shoulder check rather than give him a chance to settle the puck for a point-blank shot from the slot. "Tim has opened the door for smaller, more athletic, aggressive goalies," says Kevin Woodley, editor of the goaltending periodical InGoal Magazine. "Largely because of Tim's success, you can't just be a blocker out there; you have to [be able to] abandon technique and channel your inner street hockey when the situation calls for it."
While most goalies wear cat-eye masks, with protective bars that are horizontal above the eyes and follow facial contours down the cheeks, Thomas feels those bars obstruct both the highest and lowest fields of his vision. Instead, his mask has vertical, jail-style bars that are as widely spaced and thin as possible. "I read an article that the human eye can block those out easier," he says. When Thomas asked Sportmask, which makes his headgear, to find a suitable cage last year, the best available prototype was, in fact, a Darth Vader Halloween mask. Whatever works.
Thomas once thwarted a bear in the wild before he became one on the ice. Nine years ago in northern Manitoba he sat in a tree with a knife clenched between his teeth, and took down a grizzly with a bow and arrow after dark. "Looking back," he says, "I probably should have had some gun [instead of a knife for] backup, or another plan."
He was the Bruins' backup plan when they recalled him from the minors five years ago after Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen went down with injuries. Thomas not only assumed the starter's role for the first time in 2006 at age 31, but he also went on to win the Vezina Trophy in '09. His hardnosed approach won over both teammates and fans. "Everything about Tim speaks to his work ethic and his integrity," says defenseman Andrew Ference. "His game isn't fancy; it's honest."
So is his postgame. Before speaking, Thomas will pause to consider his answer rather than blurt out a cliché. Ask him which players are most effective at screening him and he thinks for a few seconds before singling out the Red Wings' Tomas Holmstrom, because he gets out of the way at the last instant; the Thrashers' (now Winnipeg's) Dustin Byfuglien, who takes up so much room and is very hard to move; and the Kings' Ryan Smyth, who is very skilled at directing pucks and not just tipping them.
And unlike players who insist they don't read newspapers or keep souvenirs, Thomas admits to having vast stores of memorabilia and clips, because, he says, "I never know when this will be over, and I'll want to look back and be amazed by it."
Ask him why Bostonians take to him and again he stops to ponder. "Can I give you an analogy?" he asks. "As my beard grew in these playoffs, I went from looking like a leprechaun to a logger to a hobo by the finals. At each stage different types of people can relate to me in different ways." Half of Boston would be happy to buy him a cold one—even if he never wore pads.
Last spring Thomas played through a torn left labrum and two bone chips in his left hip. He lost his job to Tuukka Rask, and the Bruins blew a 3--0 lead in the second round against the Flyers. After healing from off-season surgery, Thomas regained his starter's role from Rask early in the season and put together one of the best goaltending campaigns in NHL history. His .938 save percentage set a record, and his 2.00 goals-against average was tops in the league. In the postseason he set marks for the most shots faced (849) and most saves (798), and he held Vancouver, the NHL's top-scoring team, to eight goals in seven games. He will likely win his second Vezina Trophy this week.
Soon after dismounting the duck boat, Thomas was admiring his children's makeshift hockey game in a TD Garden hallway, and looking forward to simple family time with his wife, Melissa. He wrestled with only one regret. His grandfather Charles Thomas was suffering from Alzheimer's, he said, scratching his cap and rubbing an eye at the thought. "He used to call me Champ all the time until I started to believe it," Thomas said. "I wanted all this to happen sooner so he could see that I'd actually become one."
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