At the top, Bruins led by veteran goaltender

Associated Press
Boston Bruins' Tim Thomas, left, chats with New York Rangers' Henrik Lunqvist during Eastern Conference hockey practice for the NHL All-Star game in Montreal Saturday.

MONTREAL --- Tim Thomas' good news last year turned into a bit of bummer for the family when a last-minute invitation he got to the All-Star Game put off plans for a New York vacation.


The backstop for the Eastern Conference's best first-half team learned his lesson and kept the weekend free this year. It paid off when the Boston Bruins' No. 1 goalie earned a return trip to the midseason classic, not as a fill-in but as a top choice from the start.

"I didn't plan anything this year. Just in case," Thomas said, a Flint, Mich., native. "I was just going to kind of take it as it went."

Instead of heading to New York a year ago, the Thomas clan diverted to Atlanta for the All-Star Game. His young daughter was placated when told there was a nice aquarium to visit -- every bit of a Plan B for her as Thomas was to the East roster.

Thomas made the most of the trip, too. When Bruins teammate Marc Savard scored with 20.9 seconds left in the third period, Thomas skated off with an 8-7 All-Star victory over the West.

Now the 34-year-old goalie is back.

It's true that New Jersey Devils stalwart goalie Martin Brodeur is missing again, just as his absence opened a place for Thomas a year ago, but it would be hard to argue that Thomas didn't deserve to be there no matter who was healthy this time around.

Helped by working in a tandem with solid netminder Manny Fernandez, Thomas has gone 20-5-4 in 29 appearances this season. He has a 2.09 goals-against average and has stopped over 93 percent of the shots he has faced.

Add it up, and it's no mystery why the Bruins are 34-8-5, own a 13-point Northeast Division lead over the All-Star host Montreal Canadiens and sit in a tie with San Jose for first-place overall in the NHL.

Thomas is expected to get one period of playing time today during the 57th NHL All-Star Game, held at the Bell Centre as part of the Canadiens franchise's 100th anniversary celebration.

"Last year I was kind of a replacement, so this one is nice because I was picked outright," Thomas said. "Second of all, when you can go there and you're the team that everyone is looking up to this year, that everybody is chasing, it definitely gives you a little bit of inner confidence."

Forgive him for bristling when it's suggested he burst onto the NHL scene out of nowhere.

He has a long résumé that includes being a two-time All-American at Vermont and a leading goalie in the AHL. He also enjoyed a sparkling stint in Finland during the NHL lockout.

Outside of a 26-game tour in Providence of the AHL in the 2005-06 campaign, Thomas has been up with the Bruins ever since 2002. He won 30 games two seasons ago and followed it with 28 victories last season when the Bruins got to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Even though he is sharing significant time with Fernandez, who has 14 wins in 19 games, Thomas is well on his way to his best season -- statistically and with a whole lot of team success, too. He's set his sights on making the U.S. Olympic team for next year's Vancouver Games.

"In my mind it isn't like I'm playing better than I played in my whole career," Thomas said. "It's kind of me continuing. Now, do I think I've gotten a little bit better in the past few years? Of course. But I've tried to get better every year in my career."


WHO: Eastern vs. Western

WHEN: 6 tonight

WHERE: Bell Centre in Montreal



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