I'm still trying to get my head around all the things that culminated with last night's convincing Boston Bruins victory. I'm still sorely disappointed that we didn't get to see Cam Neely cry, but let's also not forget that, about 10 years ago, Ray Bourque waved a tearful goodbye to the East Coast because he just couldn't seem to win the Big One with Pete Peeters, Andy Moog, or Byron Dafoe. To think, all he would've had to do is stick around until he was 50 years old.
Some of you might think that I was disappointed that the Canucks lost, because I picked them to win in 6 games. Statistically speaking, it still was a logical choice; but as I always tell my friends, the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the Tournament of Small Sample Sizes. Any team, regular season or otherwise, can play a bad four games out of seven, and you only need a 57% win percentage to advance (incidentally, a win percentage that would barely get you into the playoffs). But that's the beauty of it as well, because a best-of-seven series is long enough that in many cases the better team can sort things out and advance, and upsets are that much more Herculean. As the Canucks butted up against a frustrating Boston defense, and responded by trying to draw penalties to the point that it became nauseating, I realized I didn't want the probabilities to win this one. Though I'd never felt one way or the other about the Bruins in the past, I know when I see good, tough hockey, and they brought me to root for a team that could give less of a shit about predictions and simply wanted to outwork their opponents.
And make no bones about it, this was an upset. It was a stirring victory on the quiet, intense shoulders of a 37-year old Michigander who, seven years before, had been on the outside looking in. Many words have been scribbled about Tim Thomas's odyssey to the NHL, but I think even now that's the biggest thing I have trouble grasping. A 9th-rounder out of the University of Vermont in 1994, he was part of possibly the largest draft quirk in NHL history. Seriously, just look at the goalies taken in the 9th round that year. Evgeni Nabokov, Johan Hedberg, Tomas Vokoun, and John Grahame were all taken in addition to Thomas in that round. Weird. But that's only one of the quirks of NHL history that Thomas can claim.
As we also well know, Thomas played four years of hockey with Martin St. Louis, an undersized-but-electric Quebecois who was never drafted despite a prolific career at Vermont. Given a tryout by the Ottawa Senators, he got cut, and was eventually scooped up by the Calgary Flames, who cut him loose after a couple of years. By the start of the 2000-01 season, St. Louis and Thomas had the shared experience of careers that seemed dead in the water. Ten years later, they have the shared experience of incredible stories of perseverance, not in some Rudy Ruettiger one-sack-game kind of way, but rising from relative obscurity to being considered among the best players in the game.
Add to the intrigue the fact that nobody outside of Boston could have predicted that a.) the Bruins would win the Stanley Cup, and b.) Tim Thomas would record the best goaltending season in NHL history.
Yup, I said it. I've always been of the mind that Dominik Hasek was the best goaltender the game had ever seen, and I still stand by that. And his 1998-99 season was astonishing in the way that he took a hard-nosed, low-scoring Buffalo Sabres squad and flipped and flopped his way to the Cup Finals. But he didn't get that Cup, a fact for which I will always be bitter, and somehow I feel like Thomas righted that wrong for me. I wanted Thomas to win because I wanted to see something incredible come to final, sweet fruition.
And isn't Thomas an appropriate Hasek doppelganger? His flexibility will never be as jaw-dropping as Hasek's, but his knack for taking away shots down low with whatever part of his body is lying around, making crazy but somewhat cerebral, aggressive plays, and that out-of-control vibe that always seem to simmer beneath all remind me of the Czech netminder.
Back to Thomas's incredible season...
They trade off in some of the finer categories; Thomas was a shade better at even-strength in the regular season, but Hasek was better in the playoffs. Hasek was better on the penalty kill throughout, but Thomas had the better overall save percentage and faced a higher volume of shots. It also appears that, while the Sabres allowed fewer shots in the playoffs, the Bruins allowed more.
In this case, I'm not ashamed to say that winning the Cup tips the balance for me, regardless of whether it's superficial to the data. Those final wins, those unbelievable performances against the best team in the league, were the satisfying conclusions this goaltender, and this playoff season, deserved. When it comes to predictions, I've been wrong before, but I don't think I've ever felt this good about it.
Congratulations to the Boston Bruins, who outworked an opponent that seemed indomitable, and congratulations most of all to Tim Thomas. 2010-11 was, and always will be, your season...the greatest season I might ever see.
***A fair point is being made about the difference in league save percentage in 1998-99 and 2010-11. In 1998-99, the league SV% was 0.908; in 2010-11, 0.913. While this adds a little wrinkle to the numbers (I'm still not sure I trust shot recording before the mid-2000s), I think the Cup gives Thomas's season a completeness we hadn't seen in most great goaltending seasons (4 of Tony Esposito's first 5 seasons, Martin Brodeur's 1996-97, Hasek's 1993-94, George Hainsworth's 1928-29). It might be Bernie Parent's 1973-74 that poses the biggest challenge, though then you have to consider how good the teams were around all these guys.