May 23, 2011, 11:57 PM EST
It’s amazing that someone would claim that the 2011 playoffs lack dominant goaltending performances when you consider the astounding work by Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. Whether he wins a Stanley Cup this year or not, Thomas is putting together one of the best combined regular season and playoff runs we’ve seen in a long time.*
For most of this series, the Tampa Bay Lightning carried the play but Thomas regularly bailed his Boston Bruins out. Tonight’s Game 5 might be the best example of how Thomas is carrying his team on his well-traveled back, though.
Boston 3, Tampa Bay 1; Bruins lead series 3-2
After allowing a goal on the first shot he faced (a beautifully executed one-timer from Steven Stamkos to Simon Gagne), Thomas never allowed another puck in his net. He made 33 stops overall, including a desperation stick save that might just be the best save of the 2011 playoffs.
As you can see from that clip, he wasn’t the only goalie who played well in Game 5. Lightning coach Guy Boucher decided to start Mike Smith instead of Dwayne Roloson, a move that surprised some. Out of context, it might seem like Smith was a weak link for the Lightning since he allowed two goals on 19 shots. The thing is, the two goals he allowed were nearly unstoppable and he was an asset for most of the contest. No doubt about it, Boucher faces a tough decision regarding his Game 6 starter.
Bruins recover from lopsided first period
Tampa Bay out-shot Boston 14-4 in the first period but Thomas only allowed that 1-0 goal. The Bruins scored two goals in the second period, which ended up being all the offense they would need.
Nathan Horton made amends for his two interference penalties by rifling a one-timer through Smith to make it 1-1. Horton has been hot-and-cold in his first career playoff year, but his goals have often been game-changers.
Speaking of game-changers, Brad Marchand‘s game-winning goal ended up being a nice team effort. Zdeno Chara made a nice play to keep the puck in the zone, Patrice Bergeron sent an outstanding pass through the Lightning defense and Marchand overpowered Martin St. Louis to score.
The Lightning sent steady pressure toward Thomas in every period, but the Bruins were able to hold onto that 2-1 second period lead through the rest of the game. Rich Pevereley scored the 3-1 dagger into an empty Tampa Bay net to seal the deal for Boston in the third period. Steve Downie seems to be getting reputation-based penalties in this series, as many questioned the boarding call he received while officials missed Andrew Ference tripping him behind Boston’s net. Downie was seen stewing alone on the Lightning bench after the game concluded.
Outlook for both teams
The Bruins are one win away from their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since they lost to the Edmonton Oilers in 1990. Again, they have one man to thank above all else: Tim Thomas. It’s unclear if they did this by design, but only Thomas came out during the three stars ceremony after the game. As usual, he had something interesting to say in this post-game interview.
Boston would like to avoid another Game 7 by wrapping this up in Tampa Bay, but they shouldn’t lean so heavily on Thomas on Wednesday. The Bolts are undefeated in elimination games, so this series probably won’t get an easier for the Bruins.
The Lightning put 34 shots on Thomas, frequently catching the Bruins flat-footed with their superior overall speed. One area of concern is the health of unexpected hero Sean Bergenheim, who didn’t return after suffering a first period groin injury.
After winning games in which they were regularly out-shot thanks to outstanding goaltending and timely offense during the first two rounds, The Lightning are getting a taste of their own medicine in the Eastern Conference finals. You cannot fault their effort so far, but that will be little solace if they fall two wins short of the championship round.
* – My bet is that Thomas will win the Vezina Trophy for the 2010-11 season. The last goalie who followed up a Vezina-winning regular season with a comparably outstanding postseason was Martin Brodeur, who won a Stanley Cup after earning the Vezina during the 2002-03 season.
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