SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida goaltender Tim Thomas did his best to beat his former teammates on Thursday night and yet a knuckleball from Reilly Smith in the final minute lifted Boston to a 3-2 win over the Panthers at BB&T Center.
Thomas spent parts of eight seasons with the Bruins and led Boston to the Stanley Cup in 2011, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP. He left the Bruins after being knocked out of the 2012 playoffs and hadn’t seen many of his former teammates until Thursday.
“It hurts the way ended up,” Thomas said afterward. “I really wanted the guys who played in front of me to be rewarded.”
As much as he said he tried to handle the game as any other, he knew it was bigger than that. The Bruins knew it as well. Thomas, after all, was one of the biggest stars of the Bruins’ resurgence winning the Vezina Trophy twice and being named to five All-Star teams.
Now, he’s wearing an strange-looking red jersey with a leaping cat on it. His new custom mask featuring the Panthers’ logo and colors isn’t ready yet, so Thomas is wearing a plain white model that looks like it was just purchased at the local pro shop.
“It was a little weird seeing him out there at first, but after that it was about focusing on your own job rather than thinking who was at the other end,” said Tuukka Rask, who took over for Thomas as Boston’s No. 1 netminder.
“He looked like himself. He likes to make those weird saves, and he didn’t disappoint anybody today.”
The Bruins jumped on Thomas early, scoring twice in the first 13 minutes before watching Thomas get his game going. As Thomas got hot, so did the Panthers.
After a rough first period in which the Panthers were outshot 15-8, things turned in the second period. Florida started hitting more, playing tighter defense. Thomas turned back one shot after another and ended with 37 saves.
“That first may have been our worst period of the year,” Florida coach Kevin Dineen said, “which was really surprising to us. We played well the rest of the game. We pushed hard in the third, carried some momentum. … We ended up fighting back the rest of the night.”
Boston, playing the Panthers as a divisional rival for the first time, took the lead at 3:45 of the first period when Daniel Paille charged in on Thomas and scored top shelf. This came after Thomas turned back a tough first offering from Patrice Bergeron.
The Bruins’ second goal of the first came on a power play chance with Dougie Hamilton whipping a shot from inside the blue line. Thomas, shielded by Zdeno Chara, didn’t see it coming and it was 2-0 at 12:47.
Florida hung on as Thomas turned back the Bruins on numerous occasions after that and cut its deficit in half when Kris Versteeg fired a shot from the right circle with Tomas Kopecky charging in to screen Rask at 12:32 of the second period.
The Panthers tied it with six minutes remaining as Jesse Winchester followed his own shot and put a loose rebound past Rask.
Only the Panthers couldn’t close things out as Smith backhanded a shot that trickled past Thomas. Smith, coincidentally, was never a teammate of Thomas’ in Boston. He arrived this offseason in the blockbuster Tyler Seguin deal with Dallas.
“I can’t say I’m pleased with our game tonight because we had a 2-0 lead, and then we started maybe letting up a little bit,” Boston coach Claude Julien said.
“We got away from our game as well, and started getting a little cute. It gave them an opportunity to get back into it. We’ve won some games in this building, but I don’t remember us ever playing extremely well here.”
Thomas left Boston with a year remaining on his contract after a tumultuous 2011-12 season and took last season off. Thomas accepted a professional tryout with the Panthers in September and after a strong showing in training camp signed a one-year contract two weeks later.
Thursday’s game was Thomas’ first since suffering a minor groin injury last week in Philadelphia.
Rask looked sharp throughout and made 27 saves for his fourth victory of the season. Thomas is 1-3-0 after getting the win in Florida’s season-opener in Dallas.
Thomas said just coming back from the injury took a little of the focus off his familiar opponent.
“I was so focused on making sure that I was ready for this return,” Thomas said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been hurt; I think the last time I missed with an injury was like 2007. When you¹re hurt, it’s actually a lot of work and it takes a lot of your attention away, so that probably made it easier actually.”