Thomas well-deserving of trip to finals

BOSTON -- The last time Tim Thomas went to Vancouver with a championship on the line was the 2010 Olympic Winter Games as a member of Team USA. Thomas was the backup then to Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, and the U.S. came within one goal of the gold medal, losing to Canada 3-2 in overtime. Now Thomas finds himself headed to Vancouver as the starting netminder with the Stanley Cup on the line, thanks to another brilliant performance in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Thomas made 24 saves to earn his second shutout of the series and the playoffs in the Boston Bruins' 1-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night at TD Garden.

For Thomas, who will be making his first trip to the finals, it was just another chapter in his storybook run through these playoffs and 2010-11 regular season after struggling through the 2009-10 season with a hip injury and riding the pine in last year's playoffs, when the Bruins lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Bruins coach Claude Julien and Thomas' teammates couldn't be happier for the 37-year-old netminder, who seems to age like a fine wine.

"I mean he's not getting any younger, right?" Julien said. "I think everybody knows that, I think he knows that. But one thing I can say is he's getting better. So sometimes we talk about aging, and basically, in his case, he's getting better.

"[The Stanley Cup finals is] an area where I don't think Timmy's had an opportunity to go to and it means a lot to him; and we played extremely well in front of him, but he still had to make some good saves, some important saves, and he made those. Our goal tonight was not to just rely on Timmy to win us a game; we had to do it as a team. I think our guys responded well. Timmy made the saves he had to make, and it's very fitting for him to get a shutout in a game like that because he's been good for us all year and he's deserving of all the good things that are happening to him."

Bruins winger Milan Lucic has enjoyed watching Thomas' run this season, as well, and sees no reason Thomas shouldn't win his second Vezina Trophy in the past three seasons.

"He has been great," Lucic said. "Timmy has been really great since the start of the season. His first start in Prague, we got a 3-0 victory and you just saw he wanted to make amends for having a not-so-great season last year. He is definitely going to win a Vezina this year. He has been our best player from the start of the year.

"Hats off to Timmy, playing as good as he has. He is just going to have to keep doing what he is doing. We are all happy and excited about what we have done today, but there is still more that needs to be done."

Veteran Mark Recchi has won two Stanley Cups and seen plenty of memorable goalie performances, from Tom Barrasso with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 to a rookie Cam Ward with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. But the performance that Thomas -- who is 12-6-0 with a 2.29 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and two shutouts in the playoffs -- has delivered after a season in which he led the league with a 2.00 GAA, a .938 save percentage and a 35-11-9 record has been astonishing to the two-time Stanley Cup champion. Recchi couldn't be happier for the competitive Thomas after his difficult 2009-10 season.

"Timmy's been incredible," Recchi said. "His whole run all year has been great. Right from Liberec [Czech Republic], that first exhibition game to now, he's been incredible, he's been focused, he's been strong and he's been a wall for us. It's been fun to see because he's a competitive guy and last year was tough for him with his hip and he just couldn't get his game going, and it's nice to see him get his game going again and he's shown why he's been a great goalie in this league."

Thomas was asked to compare how he feels about his upcoming trip to Vancouver for the Stanley Cup finals to how he felt during the Olympics.

"This is a little bit different," Thomas said. "I pretty much knew I wasn't going to be playing in the Olympics, so it's a shoe on a different foot. They're both honors and incredible to be part of, but they're two different things. I'm running out of words, to be honest."

His coach, teammates and everyone who has watched him this season are running out of words to describe Thomas as he tries to add one more final chapter to this magical season.

James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.