This is not normal. Tim Thomas(notes) should not be stopping pucks like this for the Boston Bruins. He should not be the leading contender for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, not when the trend is toward younger and bigger, not when Thomas is 36 and 5-foot-11 and coming off hip surgery, not when backup Tuukka Rask(notes) is 23 and 6-foot-2 and talented.
Thomas should not be getting better. But he is, and as he considers his career arc – 217th overall pick in the 1994 draft, years in the minors and European leagues, the Vezina in 2009, the bench last season – well, maybe it makes sense. For him, normal has been the abnormal.
"I don't know what normal is," Thomas said. "I've never experienced it."
"I had to take the long road to get to the NHL," he added, "but they were all experiences that I wouldn't take back, looking back now. I think I was capable of playing in the NHL at a younger age than I actually got the opportunity to, but maybe I wasn't ready as a person yet.
"I don't know. I'm 36, but I still feel good. I definitely came into this year wanting to prove that I could still play at an elite level, because I felt capable of it. That's been my goal this year."
Thomas has proven that without a doubt. He is 20-4-6, including 5-0-3 in his past eight decisions. He leads in the league in goals-against average (1.88) and save percentage (.943). He is tied for the lead in shutouts (six) with the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist(notes).
Those numbers are better than when he won the Vezina two seasons ago. He had a 2.10 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and five shutouts then – while playing on a ticking time bomb of a left hip.
The butterfly technique can take a toll on the hips of goaltenders as they drop to their knees, splay their lower legs and block the bottom of the net – again and again, practice after practice, game after game, year after year. Thomas did it in the ECHL, the IHL, the AHL, Sweden and Finland, before finally sticking in the NHL for good in 2006-07 at age 32.
By the summer of 2008, he was 34 years old, and his yoga instructor noticed his left hip was less flexible than his right. Some special exercises helped, but Thomas still had to change his technique to cover up for a lack of mobility.
"I don't want to tell you exactly, because I don't want other teams to look at it or something, but there was one simple move that every goalie does that I couldn't [do]," Thomas said. "I just thought it was the way my body was built. Turns out it wasn't the way my body was built."
What Thomas didn't know was that he had bone chips in his left hip. After so many struggles to make the NHL, Thomas finally rose to the pinnacle of his position while playing through an injury he didn't fully understand. It's a stretch to say he won the Vezina on one leg, but not too much.
The fact that Thomas won't reveal which move he couldn't perform is almost funny, because he is one goaltender opponents can hardly study, anyway. He is not famous for his efficiency, for playing the angles. He is known for his competitiveness, for finding a way, somehow, to stop the puck.
"He's not always square," Pittsburgh Penguins center Max Talbot(notes) said. "He's not always where any other goalie would be. But he's always there. He's always making the save. Because you beat him with a deke, he's not going to just let you score."
What's the book on a guy like that?
If there is a book on Thomas, it's not a playbook. It's a storybook.
Thomas went through a 1-6-2 stretch heading into the Olympic break last season. He felt some discomfort in his hip, but he thought it was just the usual aches and pains, part of getting old.
Then, in his first game back with the Bruins, he faced the Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel(notes) on a breakaway. He made a powerful move with his left hip. As he found out later, one of the bone chips, he said, "may have got caught." He tore his labrum.
"That's when it became really painful," Thomas said.
Thomas played only seven more games the rest of the season. He watched as Rask, who had led the NHL in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931) in the regular season, took the Bruins to within one win of the Eastern Conference finals. He had hip surgery in May. He listened as people expected Rask to take over this season.
The two of them get along. They have the same agent, and having played in Scandinavia, Thomas, from Flint, Mich., has something in common with Rask, from Savonlinna, Finland.
"Most people anticipated a rift, I guess," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "And it hasn't been the case. It hasn't been the case since Day 1."
Said Rask: "We get along really well. It's fun to be a partner with him."
But make no mistake: Thomas wanted his starting job back, and after Rask lost the opener, Thomas made a statement. He allowed only three goals in his first six games and won his first eight decisions.
The best battler in the league has battled as hard as he ever has before, but now he is also more equipped to battle. He no longer has to cover up for a lack of mobility.
"There's a better, easier technique that you can use – that I'm using now," Thomas said.
Does that mean Thomas is even better than he was when he won the Vezina?
Thomas thought that one over for a moment.
There is still almost half a season to play. As Julien said: "Tim Thomas … knows the style of game he plays, he cannot play 70 games a year. He understands he needs another guy with him." Though Rask is 4-9-1, it's not like he has played poorly. The Bruins have scored only 13 goals in his nine losses. He still has a .926 save percentage.
Some wonder if Thomas, who will turn 37 on April 15, will wear down on that surgically repaired hip. Some wonder if Rask will be the Bruins' goaltender again come playoff time.
"Am I getting better?" Thomas said. "Yeah. I think I've been as good as I've ever been at points during this season. The hard part's keeping it up all year, but that's what I'm working on."
Thomas smiled. He still has something to prove. It's the only normal he knows.