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Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (30) acknowledges fans at the end of the game after the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals, Wednesday, June 8, 2011, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (30) acknowledges fans at the end of the game after the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals, Wednesday, June 8, 2011, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Tim Thomas sticking it to Canucks Add to ...



Billy Smith, come back, we miss you. And while you're at, bring along Ron Hextall. We miss him, too.

The NHL's small but notorious fraternity of hack-and-whack goalies welcomed its newest member Wednesday night in the dying stages of a 4-0 Boston Bruins' victory over the Vancouver Canucks. That's when goaltender Tim Thomas reared back and smacked his stick across the back of Alex Burrows' unprotected legs, felling him the way a lumberjack would in the forests of northern British Columbia.

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Thomas was already getting serious membership consideration last Monday, when he threw a bodycheck against Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who'd set up shop just outside his goal crease.

But after the slash on Burrows? Initiation fees were waived, the waiting period ignored and the obligatory nickname duly applied. Now, joining Battlin' Billy and Ragin' Ronny, please welcome Terrible Timmy.

Terrible, incidentally, refers only to Thomas's antics. His goaltending has been the opposite of terrible - nothing short of brilliant, in fact. As Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo was giving up 12 goals in the two games in Boston, Thomas surrendered just the one - and it was late and meaningless in Game 3, the 8-1 rout on Monday night that catapulted the Bruins back into the series.

The Bruins seemed energized that night and they will tell you that part of the reason was seeing teammate Nathan Horton carted off the ice on a stretcher, after the late hit from Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome. Horton appeared in the dressing room following Boston's victory Wednesday to carry on one of those motivational traditions that teams adopt at this time of year.

In Boston, it centres on a thread-bare team jacket, awarded after each game to that night's most valuable player. On Monday, the Bruins players hung the jacket in Horton's vacated locker stall and, according to Thomas, would have been content to leave it there for the remainder of the playoffs. But Horton came by and handed it off to Rich Peverley, the two-goal scorer who'd replaced him on the top line. Thomas is not one to indulge in over-the-top sentimentality, so while acknowledging that Horton's absence provides a significant level of inspiration in this series, the chance to win a Stanley Cup for everyone on the team also ranks high on the motivational ladder.

And Thomas's teammates will tell you that the example he sets, and the competitive fires that burn within him, provide the same telling lift. Even when they were ahead in the series, the Canucks had been railing against Thomas's tactics and playing style - that he moves in and out of the crease at will, and creates as much contact as he absorbs.

Thomas explained away the slash on Burrows quite matter-of-factly: It was late in the game, the Bruins had it under control, and so he thought he'd "give him a little love tap and let him know, I know what you're doing and I'm not going to let you do it forever."

Sedin thought it was a good thing, too, because now the league would have to look at Thomas's actions and in his mind anyway, take appropriate action - whatever that might be. It sounded as though Sedin was lobbying the Game 5 refereeing crew and trying to rattle Thomas, who hasn't given an inch in this series yet, not the way Luongo did in the two games in Boston.

Questions about Luongo's confidence never seem too far away in these playoffs, and it probably didn't help matters when he was informed, after the game Wednesday, that the faithful watching the game on the big screens back at home at Rogers Arena cheered when he was lifted in favour of Cory Schneider.

It's curious too because less than a week ago, the shoe was on the other foot. Leaving Vancouver, someone asked Bruins coach Claude Julien if Thomas didn't need to mend his wandering ways, given that he was caught out of position on the winning overtime goal to Burrows in Game 2. Julien paused for half a beat, before noting that eight months into the season and with a maximum of five games away to play, radically changing the habits of a lifetime made no sense.

Since then, Thomas has vaulted to the top of the Conn Smythe Trophy betting boards, at the same time as he's wedged himself securely into the psyche of the Vancouver players. Thomas's numbers in this round are approaching historical lows - a 1.26 goals-against average, a .966 save percentage.

Vancouver is getting shots on goal, but not many Grade A scoring chances, and the ones that Boston surrenders, Thomas stops. Right now, Thomas is up to 701 saves in this playoff year, the second highest total in history. On Wednesday night, he passed John Vanbiesbrouck, Olaf Kolzig and Hextall, his fraternity brother on the historic list. Next in line: Kirk McLean, in the Canucks' 1994 run to the Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers, a goaltending performance that all of Vancouver can remember.

And the only saving grace, or mitigating circumstance, is that none of those four actually went on to win the Stanley Cup. In the search for straws that can be clutched, that may be Vancouver's best hope at the moment.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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