Tim Thomas makes belated return

BOSTON -- Tim Thomas is back again.

Only this time he will face his former team when the Boston Bruins host the Florida Panthers Tuesday night at TD Garden.

The last time the Panthers were in town, on Nov. 7, Thomas was sidelined with a groin injury. Now he's healthy and it appears he will start against the Bruins. Boston defeated Thomas and the Panthers, 3-2, on Oct. 17 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

But this will be his first game in Boston since his messy departure from the Bruins after the 2011-12 season.

"I haven't put too much thought into it, to be honest with you," Thomas said.

It will be Game No. 52 for the Panthers and Thomas is 14-14-3 with a 2.65 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. He said after Monday's optional practice that he's so focused on the task at hand that Tuesday's game is about earning two points.

"I'm really just focused on getting ready for tomorrow's game," he said. "You know me, I don't try to overblow things."

When the Panthers were in town last November, Thomas sat high above the rink at the Garden and at one point during a TV timeout, the Bruins recognized the two-time Vezina, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner with a video tribute. The 17,565 in attendance gave him a standing ovation and he waved to the fans.

"That was awesome," Thomas said Monday afternoon. "I was very honored. It was a great tribute. The way it worked out, I'm happy I didn't play my first game back here because it gave me time to come back. I did get a flood of emotions -- all good.

"It was actually better that I wasn't playing because I could appreciate it a bit more, because when I'm playing I'll be focused on what I can do," Thomas said.

Thomas made headlines in January 2012 for skipping the Bruins' Stanley Cup celebratory visit to the White House for political reasons. He was heavily criticized for his actions.

"Not on the street level," he quickly said when asked about it Monday. "I told you this before: It was only in the press. I'm telling you. I never had one person say to my face anything bad. All I had was tons of support and I'm still getting it everywhere we go. People that work at the arena in Carolina, for example, just last week. So that was something that really didn't impact me on the street level, which is where I spent my time in the year off."

Even though his teammates in Boston were split on his decision to skip the White House, Thomas doesn't think it was a distraction or affected his relationship with his teammates.

"No, I believe that was totally blown out of proportion," he said. "At least I didn't feel that way at all. I felt my teammates treated me awesome through that whole ordeal."

Without Thomas, who sat out the 2012-13 season, goaltender Tuukka Rask and the Bruins returned to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Thomas admits he thought about the what-ifs.

"Of course it's crossed my mind," Thomas said. "I was happy to see them having the success they were having and happy to see Tuukka having the success. I knew he was a great goalie and I knew when I made my decision that I was leaving the team in very strong hands and that actually made my decision easier."

As the 2012-13 season approached, it was evident there would be a work stoppage. The season prior, after the Bruins lost to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Thomas informed general manager Peter Chiarelli that he was thinking about taking a break.

When asked Monday if he still would have made a decision to take the year off even with the lockout, Thomas said he didn't know.

"After that Cup run, it took all kinds of different energy -- physical, mental, emotional energy. Then you have a crazy summer afterward and coming into the season afterward, but originally when I told Boston, I didn't say I was going to take the year off. I alerted them that I was considering it and it was something I thought was going to be kept on the down low because I didn't have to make a decision, knowing that the lockout was looming.

"I wouldn't have had to make a decision until January, which ultimately I didn't make that complete decision until January, but at one point I was forced into the corner to make a public response to explain what was going on because it was leaked. I would have appreciated it if it stayed on the down low because there was no reason to make it a story with the lockout coming up."

What if you weren't forced into a corner, Thomas was asked.

"Even up through January they were almost surprised with me coming back because I continued to train through [the lockout]," he said. "Now, ultimately that did end up being the decision I made and I believe it was the right decision, but there were certainly times during December and January that I had to revisit the thought and try to make a final decision. I didn't want to make a decision until I absolutely had to."

Last summer, the Bruins traded Thomas' rights to the New York Islanders, who made him a free agent when they decided not to toll the remaining $3 million on his four-year, $20 million contract. The Panthers offered him a tryout agreement then signed him to a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth $3.75 million.

Time and again, he has stated how his 16-month hiatus rejuvenated him and gave him "new life" and a newfound appreciation for what it takes to play in this league. Thomas reiterated that point again Monday afternoon.

"At that time I really wasn't thinking about money," he said. "I was doing what I thought was the best thing for my family and for myself, and ultimately it was. Not only did the year off give me a renewed life for hockey, just being at home and being a parent to my kids and developing a relationship with my children is much greater and stronger now than it was before that year off.

"I mean, I had a good relationship, don't get me wrong. I was a dad, but when you're constantly on the road and so focused, I hadn't developed [that relationship] yet and they were at critical ages. My son was just turning 7 and my daughter was 8 and those are critical ages, I think, to really develop a relationship with your kids before they get too old. That ended up happening over the year off, so that was one of the great benefits."

Another reason Thomas wanted to return to hockey this season was for a chance to play for Team USA in the Olympics. He was not selected to the roster for the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, but he's ready in case his services are needed. "Obviously every American wants to be on that team," Thomas said.

"So there's disappointment, but there's kind of reality the way everything led up to it with a couple of groin injuries. But I'll be ready to take the call if something happens here in the next week and a half, if there's an injury and they want to bring me, so that's the way I'm looking at it."