After a few years of confounding the hockey critics, Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas is just fine with being expected to deliver first-rate results.
Thomas is 17-4-3 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .933 save percentage for Boston. He was named a starter to the NHL all-star game later in the month.
At this point, the American netminder's underdog tale is well known. "Plugging away", as he deemed it, from Houston to Hamilton to Helsinki, Thomas only gained a somewhat secure foothold as an NHL goalie at nearly 32 years of age, in 2006.
Thomas hasn't looked back. In fact, he has vaulted into any conversation of the NHL's most consistent netminders over that time span.
The progression may seem startling to an outsider, but not to Thomas.
"In my mind, it isn't like I'm playing better than I played in my whole career; it's kind of me continuing," he said during a conference call on Jan. 12.
"Now, do I think I've gotten a little bit better in the past few years? Of course. But I've tried to get better every year in my career. It wasn't like I went from a guy who couldn't play street hockey to [all of a sudden] playing in the NHL."
Thomas and Manny Fernandez have been the best tandem in the league this year, helping Boston to a stunning leap from borderline playoff contender to No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference for much of the first half of the season. The pair occupy two of the top three spots in goals-against average, with Thomas tied for second in save percentage.
It's the latest evolution in a pairing that hasn't exactly gone according to script.
Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli in the summer of 2007 gave Fernandez No. 1-goalie-style money for a two-year deal — he makes $4.75 million US this season. But the longtime Minnesota Wild netminder played just four games for Boston last season due to a knee injury.
Makes far less than his partner
That put Thomas back into the workhorse role again last season, and he surprised many by proving his 2006 campaign wasn't an aberration, earning an all-star berth when another goalie was injured.
So it was safe for Bruins watchers to assume would be the clear go-to guy when this season rolled around.
Fernandez has gradually bounced back from knee surgery to be every bit as good as Thomas. Over the past two months, coach Claude Julien has essentially been employing a tandem approach in net.
Thomas earns $1.1 million, or, less than a quarter than this partner. He has been around the block enough to not be bothered by his workload being cut back a bit due to the outstanding play of Fernandez, like him born in 1974.
"But the good thing about playing with Manny this year is we're pretty much the same age with pretty much the same experience level," Thomas told CBCSports.ca. "We've been able to help each other out, because through a season, players don't always have their 'A games.' When that happens, I think as goaltenders we can see it in each other.
"We either settle each other down, if that needs to be, or kind of try to fire each other up, if that's what needs to happen. I think we've done a pretty good job of that this year."
The veteran said the situation was not unlike the strong working relationship he had with Andrew Raycroft in 2002-03 with Providence in the American Hockey League.
Things will get even more interesting over the next few months for Thomas and Fernandez and not just because of Julien's recent suggestion of keeping the rotation intact even through the playoffs, something not really seen in the league since the 1980s.
Interested in Olympics
Fernandez and Thomas are both unrestricted free agents and with several young Bruins like Phil Kessel and David Krejci in line for big pay raises, Boston are unlikely to make a big future commitment to both 34-year-old goalies. As well, prospect Tuukka Rask — obtained from Toronto for Raycroft — is enjoying a second consecutive strong season in the minors and itching for a full-time shot in the NHL.
Thomas refuses to even speculate about whether Boston will choose to reward him monetarily this year for his outstanding play the last three seasons, let alone where on the pay grade between 300 and 500 per cent his raise will fall.
"Basically, this whole year I've been going on a blanket 'no statement' on anything relating to that area," he said before apologizing for not wanting to talk about it.
The Flint, Mich., native was refreshingly willing, however, to express how important individual honours like the all-star game and the Olympics are to him.
Thomas said it was even more satisfying this year going to the all-star game as a selection as opposed to a injury replacement. The fact that Boston is now a league-leader sending a few players to the contest also makes it nice, he said.
The game will be held in Montreal this year, but Thomas also has his sights set on Vancouver. He said the stunning U.S. victory in 1980 left him with the childhood dream not of a Stanley Cup, like most aspiring players, but of an Olympic gold medal.
"Jim Craig was basically the reason I started to play goalie, or certainly cemented the fact that I wanted to play goalie, from watching him at those Olympics," said Thomas.
A position that looked to be a question mark for the prospective 2010 American team not too long ago with the constant injury woes of Rick DiPietro, doesn't seem quite as shaky now. Thomas, Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Ty Conklin of Detroit are all enjoying outstanding seasons.
Given both his long-and-winding journey to the NHL and the unknown plans of the Boston brass in the crease, "Goalie, United States" is about as specific as Thomas is willing to predict at this point.