- Craig Custance
In the final moments of the second period of Florida's win Sunday, the Detroit Red Wings were trying to get a late goal to pad their two-goal lead. Florida Panthers goalie Tim Thomas came out to challenge a shooter who tried to beat him to the near post. Thomas gave him no room, and with help from the post and the expiring clock, he kept the deficit at two, one his teammates would wipe out in the third.
As he skated off the ice to end the period, a smile inside his mask was detected. In the midst of all the chaos and the last-second scoring chance, Thomas was having a great time.
“I've been doing that during games,” Thomas said when we chatted after the game. “It’s just been oozing out of me.”
Even from up in the press box, you could see the enjoyment. And on a team that has an intriguing mix of veterans and youth, scrapping to stay in the playoff race, having a goalie with that perspective and clear enjoyment of the game is a benefit that goes beyond the high-end goaltending we all expected from Thomas.
“He’s able to smile after chaotic situations,” Panthers coach Peter Horachek said. “It could be four or five saves in a row and he’ll just kind of - ‘Here’s the puck.’ Smile to you, smile to the other team, it just kind of makes everybody relaxed a little bit. He keeps things calm.”
It’s a good sign for another reason.
Thomas famously took a year off, in part because that joy was gone. He didn't enjoy the game enough to keep going.
His return this year was an experiment. There really wasn't a long-range plan; instead, the plan was to give it an honest shot and see where things led. A slow start, coach firing and team buried at the bottom of the standings could have wiped out this comeback fairly quickly.
Instead, Thomas and the Panthers are shaking off that start to hang on the fringes of playoff contention.
His save percentage in October was .905. November wasn't much better, at .903. In his 15 games since then, Thomas has a save percentage of .925, which is right in the neighborhood of his career average of .921, a total he posted on considerably better Bruins teams.
He started the season uncertain how it would go. That uncertainty is lifting.
“I've learned that I’m still enjoying myself,” Thomas said. “I feel the fire is relit. I’m still capable of competing at a high level in the best league in the world, which I’m happy with. I've had a lot of fun. After that year off, I got some of the joy back.”
Thomas is 39 years old, with nothing left to prove in hockey, but his success this season during the comeback opens up a wide range of options for him moving forward.
First, the short term.