BOSTON (CBS) — For the first time as a visiting player, Tim Thomas stepped onto the TD Garden ice on Tuesday night. The reception from the fans was mostly cordial, but the way his former teammates treated him was ice cold.
Right out of the gate, the Bruins peppered Thomas with a barrage of shots, registering five in the opening 2:15 of play. Thomas was initially up to the task, but the Bruins eventually broke through with a pair of first-period goals and two more in the second en route to a 6-2 victory over the Panthers.
Though Thomas did return to Boston earlier this season, he was injured at the time. He said that his head was in the right place for Tuesday’s game, but the results obviously fell short of his own expectations.
“I felt very comfortable being in this building,” Thomas said in the hallway behind the Panthers dressing room after the game. “For me, I feel comfortable. Obviously, I didn’t feel as comfortable when they started getting 19 shots in the first period and a couple of goals going in. But I felt comfortable coming into the game, I actually felt comfortable at the beginning of the game, and then all of a sudden the first goal kind of gets you on your heels.”
Thomas, of course, left the Bruins organization under less-than-cordial circumstances, but any fears he might have had of an unwelcome treatment from the fans were likely assuaged in November, when he returned to the TD Garden for the first time as a visitor. Though he was injured and did not play, the Bruins played a brief tribute video during the third period that night, after which Thomas was given a rousing ovation from the fans in attendance.
This time around, there was no tribute video, but fans did cheer his name during introductions. Later in the game, as the goals kept pouring in behind Thomas, sarcastic chants of “Tawww-mussss” did fill the Garden, but Thomas shrugged it off, saying, “I hear that everywhere.”
“I know I’m on the Florida Panthers,” Thomas said. “Obviously, I know I’m not on the Boston Bruins, and I’m happy where I’m at and I’m excited to be a part of that organization. This still feels like a home arena to me, if that makes any sense.”
It may have felt like home, but the current Bruins made sure to let Thomas know they have the keys to the building.
“It’s the first time playing him back in Boston, where he made this his home as a goaltender for six, seven years,” said Milan Lucic, who scored two goals against his former teammate. “You can’t take anything away from the success he had here and how hard he competed and what kind of teammate he was in that sense, and how hard he battled as a goaltender for the Bruins every night. So I think it did mean more playing him the first time in Boston, over playing him in Florida [in October]. He’s still a great goaltender and we just wanted to play our game and come out on top, like we did.”
Part of that victory was a highlight-reel goal from fourth-line enforcer Shawn Thornton. It was Thornton’s fourth goal of the season, and he denied that he used any intel on how to score on Thomas from his years on the practice rink.
“I don’t know if I ever scored a goal on him in five years of practice. That might have been my first right there,” Thornton said. “The next whistle, we had a shift down there and he said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He was actually laughing. He was as surprised as I was, I suppose.”
And though the home crowd did not get to witness the stellar goaltending they used to see from Thomas on a regular basis (he stopped 35 of 41 shots), they did get to see a brief glimpse of his trademark temper. In the game’s final minute, Thomas took offense to Carl Soderberg stepping into the crease and contacting the netminder in an attempt to bat loose a rebound. Thomas used his goal stick to whack Soderberg in the head, and it wasn’t the first time Thomas has attacked a skilled Swedish forward in the crease at the Garden.
“Soderberg, the play before that he did quite a hard jab, and then all of a sudden the puck is up in the air, [I’m] catching it, and his stick is in my throat,” Thomas said. “With less than a minute left in a game and they’re up by four goals, 6-2, I took exception to that.”
“We can’t stop playing just because the game has 30 seconds left. We have to try to score the whole way,” Soderberg said, before adding, “I’m fine.”
Thomas, 39, is in his first season with the Florida Panthers, which is also his first in the NHL outside of the Bruins organization. For Boston, he played in 410 regular-season games for the Bruins and 50 more postseason games, none more memorable than the 25-game stretch in the spring of 2011 that brought Boston its first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Thomas posted a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average in that postseason, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, the oldest player to ever win the award. A true underdog’s tale of the unwanted goaltender who finally made the big time reached its apex in June 2011.
Yet the good feelings didn’t last forever, and when Thomas decided the following season to skip the team’s trip to the White House, where they were greeted and welcomed by President Barack Obama, the story began to change. Thomas released political statements on his Facebook page and refused to answer any questions in the media, even cutting short some discussions with reporters when the topic was broached.
Thomas and the Bruins lost in overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, after which Thomas surprisingly announced that he would be taking a yearlong break from playing in the NHL. Thomas had one year and $3 million left on his contact at that point. The Bruins had Tuukka Rask waiting in the wings to take over as the team’s No. 1 goalie, a fact that helped ease the transition for the team and lessen the impact of Thomas’ departure. Still, Thomas no doubt changed the way fans in Boston looked at him just one year prior.
Yet Tuesday night showed that what happened in the past will remain there.
“I think with time people forget, and they tend to remember the good things, and Timmy did a lot of good things,” said Chris Kelly, a member of the Cup-winning team who made his return to the Bruins lineup on Tuesday. “We won a Stanley Cup, and that’s something that is special for every guy that was on that team. In 20 years, if they have a reunion, I’m sure Timmy will be back. I hope Timmy’s back. I hope everyone is back to reunite.”
And in case there was any lingering doubt that bygones have essentially become bygones, Thomas opened his postgame discussion by making a self-aware wisecrack.
“Well, no,” Thomas said flatly when asked if he had any fun during the game. “I think I might’ve enjoyed myself watching the State of the Union more. … No, probably not.”