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Bruins' Thomas makes good on 'guarantee'

BOSTON – Just over a minute into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, Tim Thomas(notes) didn't exactly look like Nostradamus.

The Boston Bruins goalie had made like a 1994 Mark Messier after Boston's epic Game 4 collapse Saturday, guaranteeing his team would win its series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tampa used this as bulletin-board fodder and came out flying Monday at the TD Garden. Thomas guessed wrong on a 2-on-1 break, giving Simon Gagne(notes) a wide-open net for the game's first tally just 73 seconds into the contest.

But the Bruins' unorthodox Vezina Trophy candidate clamped down from there, making 33 saves in Boston's 3-1 victory. With a 3-2 series lead, Boston can clinch its first trip to the Stanley Cup final since 1990 with a Game 6 victory in Tampa on Wednesday.

"I don't want to let in an early goal, obviously," said Thomas, whose team has been outshot 11 times this postseason. "But I've had experience with it in the past and for some reason, sometimes it can relax me and that's the effect it had tonight. It was just kind of like, ‘I'm going to have to work hard and not let them get any further away and to give us a chance to win.’ "

That attitude has served Thomas well several times during the Bruins' biggest postseason run in two decades. While Monday's game might not have been as dramatic as his 52-save effort when Boston stole an overtime win in Game 2 of the previous series against Philadelphia, the 37 year old kept the slumbering Bruins in the game during the first period.

The Lightning score goals in bunches and they had their opportunities to pile on, including three first-period power plays. But despite a 14-4 shot advantage, Tampa couldn't build on its lead.

"He seems to be so calm out there," Bruins winger Brad Marchand(notes) said. "You kind of look at him and you get a sense of confidence just from the way he stands there and he's so poised and calm in situations like that. I think that's why he's a great goalie. Those big moments when you need him, he's calm and relaxed and confident, and that's big for us.”

"He allowed us to stay in the game," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "He gave us a chance to get back in the game."

Thomas and the Bruins shut down the Lightning's fourth power play of the game early in the second period, a questionable interference call against Nathan Horton(notes), when Boston finally got their act together.

Tampa goalie Mike Smith(notes), who relieved veteran Dwayne Roloson(notes) early in Game 4 and didn't allow a goal as the Lightning rallied to victory, got his first playoff start in Game 5 and didn't face much pressure in the early going.

Horton fired a laser past Smith – Smith's first goal allowed in 85:15 of postseason action – at 4:24 to tie the score. With momentum turning, Boston kept up the pressure and took the lead at 15:56, when Patrice Bergeron(notes) rifled a perfect pass across the slot to Marchand, who one-timed it home for a 2-1 lead.

"I think after all the penalties, we just got the momentum," said Horton. "We feel it, I think everyone felt it, and we just kind of took off from there. … Timmy was great again, he made some unbelievable saves and that's what you need to win games.”

In the third period, Thomas was both lucky and good as the Lightning brought the heat. Two minutes in, Blair Jones(notes) broke in clean and appeared to have Thomas beat, but the Bruins netminder got a piece of it with his shoulder and the puck dinged off the far post and out of harm's way.

"I saw him cutting in, and I was just trying to take up as much net as possible and get the right angle before he was releasing it," Thomas said. "He put his hands in the air, or somebody did, and I was confused for a minute because I didn't think [the puck] was in."

Then, with about 11 minutes left, Thomas made one of the biggest saves of the postseason, as winger Steve Downie(notes) had a wide-open short side, but Thomas sprawled and got a piece of the puck with his stick.

"I was out toward the top of the crease and I didn't have time to get my whole body back," Thomas said. "With the way the new boards are nowadays in all the arenas, you’ve got to be on your toes with the big bounces and the big bounce came out. It was just a reaction and desperation and I'll admit I got a bit lucky there."

It was an improbable save, but this is an improbable goaltender on an improbable team. Last year, Thomas was a 36-year-old former Vezina winner who sat on the bench while the team underwent a historic collapse, blowing a 3-0 series lead and losing to Philadelphia in the second round.

One year later, the Bruins have a downright putrid power play – they went 0-for-4 Monday, putting them at a hideous 4-for-56 in the postseason – and haven't quite shaken off a maddening tendency to get complacent when things are going well, as evidenced by the Game 4 meltdown.

And yet, with Thomas as the engine, Boston has stared down its demons – slamming the door on the Flyers in the rematch – and now they stand one win from the Cup final for the first time since current club president Cam Neely roamed the Garden ice.

Understandably, they're not looking ahead, not after last year's fiasco. In fact, Thomas even went so far as to attempt to deny his Messier moment. "There was no guarantee," he said. "The way the question was framed was more the effect of how do I see the rest of the series going. In my mind, I was thinking about how I visualize, and of course I'm going to visualize us winning the series. I'm not going to sit there and visualize us losing."

Sure thing, Tim. However it was meant, he's halfway to being right, and he's not going to change his approach now.

"That is there, the fact that we're one win away from the Stanley Cup finals," Thomas said. "But that isn't what we need to focus on. We need to focus on just playing the next game as good as we can."

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