It took him 11 years after being drafted to earn a full-time job in the NHL so it's easy to understand why he gets such a big kick out of coming out on top. The 32-year-old native of Flint, Mich., was at his best in stopping 45 shots, including 21 in the third period, to enable the Boston Bruins to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 Tuesday night.
"It was a kick to make it to the NHL and it's a kick every time I get to show people I can play at this level," said Thomas.
Glen Murray broke a 1-1 tie early in the third period, and insurance was added by Marco Sturm and Brad Boyes, with an empty-netter, but it was the play of the down-to-earth Thomas that was the difference.
Toronto outshot Boston 46-24. Thomas denied, with a wide grin, that the puck was looking as big as a beach ball to him.
"Unfortunately for me, I've never had the puck look like a beach ball," he said. "I wish it would.
"It's never looked bigger than a puck to me, but it has looked smaller. That's for sure. Right now, I'm hitting a groove."
Goals by Shean Donovan and Nik Antropov in the second period had sent the teams into the third tied 1-1.
It was the seventh win for the Bruins in their last nine games.
"We've found a way to play that we need to play to have success," said Thomas. "The coaches have put us on that track.
"Now, if things start to go south it's because we're not playing the way we need to play. Earlier in the year, I think we were trying to learn how we needed to play. We're starting to figure out which guys need to do what."
Two losses to Boston in four days have the Leafs in a rut.
"It was a dirty game where you had to bang it out along the boards," said right-winger Darcy Tucker. "They got in lanes, they got sticks on (us), they did what they needed to do make it difficult on us."
Toronto defenceman Bryan McCabe left in the dying minutes with a left ankle injury. Coach Paul Maurice indicated it might be minor. He's hoping that's the case.
Toronto has faced Boston in four of its last nine games. The Leafs won 6-4 (Nov. 9) and Boston won 2-1 (Nov. 16) and 3-1 (Nov. 25) before the Northeast Division rivalry was renewed in front of a capacity Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,469.
Donovan opened the scoring at 5:59 of the second period when he took a wrist shot from the circle to the right of goaltender Andrew Raycroft that deposited the puck in the far top corner of the net. It was the first goal of the season for the former Calgary Flames forward.
It was 1-1 when Antropov got credit for a goal after a video review overturned referee Kevin Pollock's initial ruling. Mike Peca took the shot, Antropov braked as he skated into the crease, and the puck struck his skate blade and ricocheted into the net at 15:39. Pollock waved it off, and the video goal judges studied it long and hard before awarding Antropov his fifth goal of the season.
Toronto got a golden opportunity to grab the lead early in the third period when Wayne Primeau was sent off for hooking at 2:07 and Andrew Alberts for high-sticking Matt Stajan at 2:26, but Thomas easily stopped the two long shots the Leafs managed during the two-man advantage that lasted 1:41.
"My D did a great job of keeping all of the shots to the outside," said Thomas. "That was a huge momentum-builder for the guys on the bench."
Boston regained the lead at 5:35 when Petr Tenkrat set Murray up in the circle to the left of Raycroft. Murray's slap shot sent the puck into the top corner on the short side of the net - Raycroft's glove side again. It was Murray's team-leading 12th goal of the season.
"Our goaltender kept us in the game and we kept plugging away," said Murray.
Sturm broke free for a clear shot at Raycroft and slid a shot between the goalie's legs for his fourth goal of the season at 17:07, and Raycroft was on the bench when Boyes got his fifth goal at 19:36.
The Leafs go on the road for games Thursday in Atlanta and Saturday in Montreal. The only positive out of the Tuesday loss was all their shots on goal.
"I don't think overall we did a good enough job looking to pick up rebounds and driving to the net without the puck, but it's certainly an encouraging sign we're getting pucks at the net," said Peca.
Boston's checking in the neutral zone frustrated the Leafs.
"You get in close, tight games, a tight defensive team like Boston, they just sit back and make you earn every inch of ice coming through the neutral zone," said Peca. "They've got some guys that are really good killing penalties, and they did a really good job."
Then there was Thomas.
"He's playing well," said Peca. "There were a lot of shots we had where he just gobbled up the rebound and didn't give us a second chance."
Notes: On power plays, Toronto was 0-for-6 and Boston was 0-for-3 . . . Boston D Paul Mara left in the second period and did not return . . . Boston had a 25-22 edge in hits . . . Boston rookie C Phil Kessel got only 5:17 ice time . . . Earlier Tuesday, the Leafs traded third-string goaltender Mikael Tellqvist to the Phoenix Coyotes for right-winger Tyson Nash, a former NHL agitator who has been playing for the AHL team in San Antonio, and a fourth-round 2007 draft pick. Nash will report to the Toronto Marlies . . . D Jay Harrison cleared waivers and was assigned to the Marlies . .D Pavel Kubina wore No. 31 instead of his usual 73 . . . Free-agent pitcher Gil Meche was the guest of Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi at the game . . . The Leafs and the Bruins meet a fifth time next Thursday in Boston.