WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF THE BLUE PAINT, AND SOMETIMES even beyond it, Tim Thomas has the ability to suspend the laws of logic. A highlight reel of the goalie's stops is a collection of the confounding. He stacks his pads to deny Chris Drury of the Rangers, splits to stone the Senators' Daniel Alfredsson. He lunges, leaps and sprawls, all in the name of making the impossible save. In the era of the textbook butterfly goalie, Thomas is antitextbook.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, with Boston clinging to a one-goal lead against Tampa Bay, Lightning forward Steve Downie was certain he saw an open net. Thomas was stationed at the top of his crease when defenseman Eric Brewer's shot bounced neatly off the end boards and onto Downie's stick just to the side of the Bruins' cage. Nothing but air stood between puck and twine. "I saw it," Bruins winger Brad Marchand said. "I was sitting on the bench, [and] I thought it was for sure going to be a goal."
If the rookie Marchand didn't know before, he certainly learned then that when it comes to beating the 37-year-old Boston netminder, there is no such thing as a surefire goal. As Downie tapped the puck toward the wide-open net, Thomas reached desperately back with his stick and got enough of the puck to deflect it, salvaging the lead and saving the game. If there were such a thing as a signature Thomas stop, this would be it. "There's no secret to his game," Boston backup Tuukka Rask says. "He's just a battler. He never gives up, because that's his nature."
THE ROAD TO THE NHL IS DIFFERENT FOR EVERY player. For Thomas it resembled a winding dirt path. Drafted 217th overall by the Nordiques in 1994 after his freshman season at Vermont, the 20-year-old native of Flint, Mich., returned to college and went on to earn All-America honors while going 81-44-15 with a 2.70 GAA in four seasons. But upon graduation—with a B.A. in English and a history minor—he couldn't stick in the NHL, so he signed with the Birmingham Bulls of the ECHL.
He toiled in the minor leagues; took detours to play in Finland and Sweden. Years passed. Thomas wondered if his dream of playing between the pipes in the NHL was truly a pipe dream. Stints in the Edmonton and the Boston systems, slotted in among his varied travels over the course of nine years, proved fruitless; he began to rein in his ambitions. "I believed I had the talent to play at a high level in the NHL," Thomas says, "but at points in my career, like when I was in Finland [in 2005], I pretty much made peace with the fact that [the NHL] was never going to happen.
"And then I got the opportunity to sign back with Boston," he continues. "It was a difficult decision for me to take that chance and come back to the NHL, because I had made that peace ... and I had a good setup in Finland, where I enjoyed playing with a team that really appreciated me."
Nevertheless, Thomas gave it one last shot with the Bruins—and was sent down to Providence to start the 2005--06 season. "That was devastating," Thomas said.
By late that season Thomas came back up and did win the starting job in Boston, at age 31. At a time when some players might begin to ponder the final chapters of their careers, Thomas felt that his had just begun. For three seasons his numbers improved, and he finally began to demand the attention he long thought he deserved—and not because he played, as a league official once remarked, "like a heart attack in the crease."
Thomas and his team were a fit. "He's had so many obstacles in front of him that he's overcome, it makes him a battler," says Bruins coach Claude Julien. "It makes him perfect for our organization. We're a blue-collar team that works hard and earns every inch of the ice."