TORONTO - He's leading the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage, and is the favourite for the Vezina Trophy, but it's been a trying 2011 for Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas.
Saturday night against the Maple Leafs was emblematic of what's been happening since January 1: Thomas allowed four goals on 14 shots before the second period was half over and was pulled by head coach Claude Julien.
Since the calendar turned to 2011, Thomas has seen his GAA rise from 1.74 to 2.08 and his save percentage fall from .947 to .937 after Saturday. His numbers are still mind-boggling, but are now within reach of the goalies around the league and his hold on the Vezina is slipping.
Some of that falls on his teammates of course. They've been admittedly bad as of late, and talked about over-thinking things too much and needing to be more committed to the Bruins defensive plan. They know they haven't been doing their goalie any favours as of late.
As does Julien, which is why Thomas was back between the pipes to begin the third period of what turned out to be a 5-2 loss. Thomas stopped all eight shots he faced.
"After the second period me and Claude had a talk trying to decide on the best thing to do," the 36-year-old netminder said. "I wanted to go back in and get back into some game action and battle through it basically."
"Just because it's 5-1, that's no reason to not put him back in," added Julien.
Thomas is one of more respected players in the league because his road to NHL stardom hasn't always been straight or smooth. He played professionally for nine teams in five leagues, including in Sweden and Finland, before establishing himself as an NHL regular with Boston in 2005-06.
Since then he won the 2009 Vezina as the NHL's top goaltender, was named to Team USA for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, lost his starting job to youngster Tuukka Rask last season, and won it back with his outstanding play this season.
"He's a battler, everyone knows he hasn't gotten here easily, he's gone through a lot of things" Rask said. "That's one of the reasons he's playing at this level, because he battles every night."
Mark Recchi is in his 21st NHL season. He's played with and against many of the game's greats and appreciates what Thomas has brought to the league and the Bruins.
"He never gave up on his career," Recchi said. "He wanted to go back in and he wanted to play a great third. That's the type of guy you want on your team."