WILMINGTON, Mass. — Tim Thomas came out of playoff hibernation and played better than any goalie this season. Now, he’ll try to be just as sharp in the postseason for the Boston Bruins.
Carey Price spent most of last year’s playoffs on the bench. Then, he started 70 games for the Montreal Canadiens.
Another postseason starts Thursday in one of the NHL’s richest rivalries and the goalies who didn’t matter just a year ago loom as major factors.
“The situation’s totally different,” Thomas said Wednesday after a light practice lasting about 45 minutes. “That’s the way it is in this game. Every year’s different and a new opportunity.”
Thomas sat out the playoffs last year with a left hip injury that required surgery. Tuukka Rask started all 13 games in his place and seemed set to keep the No. 1 job. But Rask had little chance as Thomas finished first in the NHL with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .938 save percentage and a .718 winning percentage and second with nine shutouts.
Now, he’s a favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy in three years.
“I don’t think he was 100 percent healthy last year and it really didn’t help his play,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “What you saw this year is what you saw two years ago, when he won the Vezina.”
Price lost his job in the middle of last season to Jaroslav Halak and started just one of Montreal’s 18 playoff games. But when Halak was traded to the St. Louis Blues less than a month after the Canadiens’ season ended, Price took over. He finished third in the league with eight shutouts, seventh with a .923 save percentage and 10th with a 2.35 goals against average.
“He could have easily pouted and been a distraction” in last year’s playoffs, Montreal’s Scott Gomez said. “He stayed after (practice), took extra shots. He was always positive, always talking. You’ve had backups when they’re upset, you know it. Not this guy. He didn’t even make it an issue.”
The Canadiens, seeded eighth going into the Eastern Conference playoffs last year, overcame a 3-1 deficit and eliminated the top-seeded Washington Capitals in seven games. Then, they knocked off the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games after trailing 3-2, before being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference finals in five games.
“We definitely learned some things as a team, especially that series against Washington,” Price said. “When we got down like that, we just played with no fear. And I think that’s how we’ve got to go into these playoffs.”
The sixth-seeded Canadiens were 4-2 against the third-seeded Bruins this season, winning once in overtime, but Boston won the last meeting, 7-0 at home.
And there was plenty of physical play.
On Feb. 9 in Boston, the Bruins won 8-6 in a game with 45 penalties for 182 minutes. On March 8 in Montreal, the Canadiens won 4-1, a victory overshadowed by Zdeno Chara’s hard hit that drove Max Pacioretty into a stanchion between the team’s benches. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a cracked vertebra.
“It’s not about all the other stuff that’s taken place or what’s happened this year,” Montreal’s Brian Gionta said. “It’s about who can win the four games.”
Pacioretty isn’t close to playing, according to coach Jacques Martin.
“You go after their best players, they’re going to go after ours,” Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill said. “That’s the name of the game. That’s the playoffs and that’s why it’s fun. It’s going to be a battle all the way through, I imagine.”
The Bruins have the edge in size and physical play. The Canadiens are smaller and faster.
The teams will meet in the first round for the third time in four years and 33rd time overall, an NHL record. Montreal won in seven games in 2008, then was swept in four games in 2009.
The Bruins seemed headed for last year’s conference finals. They beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games, and then took a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia. But the Flyers forced a seventh game and won that 4-3 by overcoming another 3-0 deficit.
“We were very inconsistent last year,” forward Mark Recchi said. “We’re more consistent on how we do our forecheck now. I think that’s a key.”
The Bruins allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference this season (195) and scored the third most (246), but were only 20th overall on the power play. The Canadiens ranked seventh with the extra man.
“Our special teams have been excellent,” Martin said, “and they’re going to be very important in this series.”
Not as important as the goalies.
Thomas expects Montreal’s forwards to crash the net and that’s OK with him.
“Usually, it gets me into the game,” he said. “I generally have problems with the teams with people who are overly nice to me. It’s kind of weird, actually.”
The Bruins are likely to do the same to Price.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’m sure the referees are obviously going to be watchful about that.”
The season series was so physical that even Thomas and Price got into a mild skirmish in that penalty-filled game in February. After a hard hit behind the Canadiens’ net sparked a melee involving several players, Thomas skated from the other end toward Price. They dropped their masks and gloves, tugged at each other’s jerseys for about 20 seconds, then smiled.
Don’t expect a rematch in the playoffs.
“I bet we’re both too focused,” Thomas said, “on trying to stop the puck to worry about that stuff.”