NHL Playoffs 2012: Why Game 6 Could Define Tim Thomas' 11-12 Season, Future

Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas is 8-2 when starting a game he must win to preserve his team’s endeavor for a Stanley Cup. Career elimination game No. 11 is on tap for Sunday afternoon as the Bruins seek to avert a six-game upset at the hands of the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals.

So far, since reaching the NHL, Thomas’ only failures to stave off his summer have been a 5-0 Game 7 flameout in Montreal in 2008 and an overtime falter against Carolina in 2009.

In one case, the late-blooming Thomas was in his first-ever NHL playoff series and bolstering a franchise that had not seen postseason action since 2004. Oh, and he was leading his team against a year-long nemesis that had merely won eight out of eight regular-season meetings.

Although the top-dog Canadiens decisively prevailed in that rubber game, the 2007-08 Bruins are better remembered for just making the series competitive with a 5-1 Game 5 triumph and a landmark 5-4 win in Game 6.

The following year, a then-35-year-old Thomas and his mostly much younger skating mates had their first experience of being the favorites in a playoff series. They swept Montreal in a 180-degree role reversal and then found themselves in a hole against a startling six-seeded Carolina club.

The final three games of 2008-09 followed the same superficial course as those of 2007-08. Thomas did his part to delete a 3-1 series deficit and force overtime in a seesaw seventh game before a turnover brought on instant defeat.

Thomas and his hampered hip could only watch as unripe colleague Tuukka Rask lost his first and still only elimination game in 2010. But successful offseason surgery and an overwhelming supply of determination allowed the elder half of Boston’s goaltending tandem to rinse out all of the vinegar last spring.

Thomas will enter Sunday’s do-or-die tilt having won four straight games of that sort in 2011. He backstopped a pair of Game 7 victories in the first and third rounds and helped the Bruins outscore the Vancouver Canucks, 9-2, over the final two games of the Stanley Cup finals.

Naturally, all of this evokes the question, does he still have it?

Thomas will be exactly one week removed from turning 38 years of age when he confronts the Caps in Game 6. He is on the heels of a classic Jekyll-and-Hyde season that saw him blanket all side effects of a long playoff run and short, celebratory summer for three months before tumbling through January, February and early March.

Since he reclaimed the starting job from Rask in October 2010, Thomas has accumulated 8,580 minutes of crease time over 116 regular-season and 30 playoff outings. One of those games ended with him relishing a Cup and a Conn Smythe right at the halfway mark of June 2011.

Conversely, when he was facing elimination in 2008, 2009 and 2011, he was coming off a preceding season that saw him play his last game in April. That left anywhere from eight to 10 extra weeks for him to reflect, recharge and return with something to prove.

Granted, he still has something to prove. But does he have the inner supplies to prove it?

Another breed of short rest will be a hurdle for the Bruins on Sunday as they will face off in Game 6 barely 21 hours after the conclusion of Game 5 and with a travel day squeezed in between.

As was the case with the brief summer, this quick turnaround figures to test the man who stands (and sometimes kneels) throughout each period and plays every minute more than it will any skater. Throw that on top of the series-old fact that Thomas has been in a tight arm-wrestling match with Washington counterpart Braden Holtby.

Ever since Thomas all but issued a postseason tutoring session by winning a 1-0 overtime bout in Game 1, Holtby has hogged the limelight in net. In the four games since experience triumphed over a fight with baptismal fire, the masked man representing the future of his position has gotten the better of the present.

And that personification of the present could be a part of the past in a matter of only one, two or three more years.

Translation: Thomas could delay his downturn toward retirement if he makes a clear statement in his Sunday performance. Whether it is more reminiscent of his perseverant performance in Game 6 from 2008 or his shutouts of Carolina in 2009 or Vancouver in 2011, a win will be a win.

With Rask still recovering from his March 3 injury and still not yet re-signed ahead of impending free agency and with Anton Khudobin still unproven at the NHL level, Sunday will not likely determine Thomas’ fate for 2012-13.

He still has another year on his current contract and the Bruins would be shrewd to give him another whirl, even if it is only for the purpose of warming the younger goalies’ seats.

By the same token, if Thomas blinks and the Bruins find themselves shaking hands with the victorious Caps, the aging netminder can expect a shorter leash next autumn.

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