BOSTON -- Prior to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, Tim Thomas promised his team and coach Claude Julien his best game of the series was yet to come. And did he ever deliver, as the Vezina Trophy nominee made 44 saves to backstop the Bruins to a 2-1 double-overtime win and a 3-2 series lead.
Thanks to Thomas' brilliant performance, the Bruins will head to Montreal with a chance to clinch the series in Game 6 at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night and become the first Bruins team to come back from a 2-0 playoff series deficit.
"This was without a doubt his best game of the series," Julien said of Thomas' performance. "He said the best was yet to come and he backed it up."
Thomas' best save came 5:34 into the second overtime, when he robbed Canadiens winger Brian Gionta with a sliding pad save. The Habs had been buzzing in the second overtime up to that point, as the Bruins' legs appeared to be giving in to fatigue. But that save revitalized them, and at 9:03 in the period, they rewarded Thomas for that save and all the other showstoppers he made when Nathan Horton scored the game-winner to send the TD Garden crowd into a frenzy and a dumbfounded Habs team home wondering how they just lost their second straight overtime game to trail in the series.
"Save of the game. Simple as that," captain Zdeno Chara said of the play. "It is 2-on-1 and I think he made a hell of a save."
Covered in sweat after the marathon game, Thomas described the save.
"Well, if my stuff wasn't disgusting enough before, it is now," Thomas said with a laugh about his equipment as he prepared to face the giant media scrum. "When [the play] started, I actually came out and was playing it as if [Travis] Moen would have a breakaway because that's what it looked like -- a break -- right off the start. And then I realized my D was going to get back and make it a 2-on–1, and I was out pretty far, so I had to make sure I started to get my backward momentum going so I could play both the shot and the pass. And I just barely had enough speed to be able to make that push over on the pass. And I was just fortunate enough to get a leg out and cover that part of the net."
Thomas also got some great assistance from his teammates, as Michael Ryder, Chara and Patrice Bergeron were all able to keep the puck from going into an empty net when Thomas was down and out on the ice or caught out of position. Ryder's save with less than 12 minutes left in the first period was a textbook ball hockey save, and Thomas credited the winger who has now had two huge games in a row after scoring the overtime winner in Game 4.
"That was awesome," Thomas said. "And I was actually turned around, I got to watch it pretty good. That was a huge save, and in this type of game, that's a game-breaker."
Ryder said his glove save did indeed come from his ball hockey days.
"Ball hockey, not ice hockey," Ryder answered when asked if he ever played goalie. "Well, when I was a kid I did, but my dad made me stop and said I had to play out."
In the dressing room, Ryder was awarded the Bruins' old-school windbreaker jacket, given to the player the team deems the MVP of each win. But he made sure the real goalie got all the credit.
"I don't know, he made that huge save in OT there," Ryder said of Thomas, "and he's made the big saves when he needs to and he came up huge for us there. And then we scored a couple shifts right after that."
Early in the game, as the two teams skated off the ice for the second intermission, Thomas and Habs goalie Carey Price -- who was also amazing with 49 saves -- looked at each other, winked and smiled. Both knew they were entrenched in a goalie duel, and the off-ice friends were enjoying every minute of it.
"We do that a lot, but yeah, we knew this was a good one and a fun one," Thomas said. "Carey played a very good game, he made some really good saves. My job, like I've said it before, I'm not really playing against Carey, so to speak, but tonight I was, in a way. Just because whenever he made saves, I had to make sure I made the saves because it was such a tight game."
Thomas admitted goalie duels and overtime games like this one can be enjoyable, but he wouldn't have minded if Game 5 ended earlier.
"In a way, like when you're competing, it is [fun]," Thomas said. "The further it goes on, you just want to win so bad that -- it was fun, but I wouldn't have minded if we won in regulation or the first overtime, let's put it that way."
If not for Thomas, it could've ended earlier, and not the way the Bruins or their fans would've wanted.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.