Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in 2009 after leading the league with a 2.10 GAA and a .933 save percentage. Here was undeniable proof of how far he had come. "Four years ago this wasn't even worth dreaming about," Thomas said after receiving the award. "I mean, if I was telling my friends four years ago that I would be winning the Vezina in a couple years, they'd be, like, Yeah, O.K. You're having a hard time finding a job in Finland."
With the nod as the league's best goalie came a four-year contract worth $20 million and maybe, at last, the expectation that his job was secure. But as Thomas learned, a goalie is only as good as his last save. "You get some benefit of the doubt if you build up some credit after a while," he says, "but it doesn't last very long. I figured that out."
THE FIRST INDICATION THAT SOMETHING WAS AWRY in his left hip came in 2008, after a strength evaluation he received from his yoga instructor, Dana Santas. She noted a lack of mobility. "There's usually a slight difference in range of motion on each side, depending on the person," Santas says. "But with Tim the difference between his right and left sides was really noticeable."
They worked to increase his flexibility in that hip, something Thomas believes helped him in his Vezina season, but eventually the pain became more pronounced. "At points [in 2009--10], pretty much every time I would do a butterfly, there was pain," Thomas says. "It caused a lot of restrictions in my movements."
Unknowingly playing with a torn labrum in his left hip, Thomas ended up overcompensating, altering his style to protect himself from the pain. "I couldn't put the weight on the left leg ... [so] I was doing a one-legged butterfly a lot," he says. "When I did go down with both legs, it was not a natural motion, and that affected my flexibility, my scrambling ability, which is a part of what got me here. It wasn't necessarily that first save but getting to the second and third save. I lost that ability."
His play suffered, and Thomas felt helpless. "My body just wouldn't do what I told it to do," he says. "I did question myself at times. I didn't know if maybe I was getting old. I didn't think it would come on that suddenly because I felt so great the year before. But I was questioning because I didn't know the answer."
Thomas was forced to cede the starting job to Rask, who went on to lead the league with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage in a brilliant rookie campaign. Then, in Thomas's first game after returning from the Olympics in Vancouver (where he won silver with Team USA), he made a sliding pad save on Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel and felt a searing pain in his hip. He finished the game with a 3--2 shootout win, but he realized that something might be seriously wrong, that surgery might be needed.
After Philadelphia came back to eliminate Boston in the second round, Julien held exit meetings with his players. Still not knowing the extent of Thomas's injury, the coach mentioned how well he thought Thomas had handled an admittedly tough year. "I don't know how, but somewhere down the road, you'll get paid back for the way you treated the situation [with Rask]," Julien told his goalie. "It'll make you a better person."
It turned out that Thomas needed hip surgery, which he underwent in May 2010. Almost immediately, he says, he felt a greater range of motion in his legs. Those signature saves came more easily. His body and mind had reconciled their differences. "If anything, I see an even better Tim Thomas when it comes to handling those rebounds, controlling them and smothering them," Julien said early this season, as Thomas ripped off 10 wins in his first 12 starts. Winning back his starter's role emphatically, he finished the year with the league lead in GAA (2.00) and established a modern record with his .938 save percentage, proving that his dominance of 2008--09 was the norm, not the exception.