Tim Thomas can credit Jim Craig for the inspiration. And he can blame his own big mouth for the opportunity.

Tim Thomas can credit Jim Craig for the inspiration.

And he can blame his own big mouth for the opportunity.
 
The Bruins goalie was all of 5 years old when he first donned pads and a blocker on the ice. His coach probably made sure he was wearing a mouthguard as well.
 
"It's going to sound stupid for a 5-year-old, but I was complaining to my coach about our goalie," explained Thomas of how he got his start as a netminder. "He said 'If you think you can do better, get in there.' And I did. And basically I never left."

The Bruins are certainly glad he didn't, and they can probably give an assist to Craig and the 1980 Olympic team as well. Watching the Miracle on Ice turned Thomas' netminding duties from a punishment for his wisecrack to a lifelong vocation.
 
"I was 5 the same year as the 1980 Olympics," Thomas said. "I think I had always liked goaltending before that - my dad had been shooting on me since I was 2. But that year, with the Olympics and (watching) Jim Craig ... I think I was already playing goalie at that point, but that just made it that there was no way I wasn't going to be a goalie."
 
Still, it was a long road from blocking shots from his dad in the driveway to making it to the NHL. Thomas' path took more excursions than most, as he followed up a stellar collegiate career at Vermont with stops in the ECHL, International Hockey League, three separate stints in Finland, a year in Sweden and three-plus seasons in the American Hockey League before finally landing a full-time job in the NHL with the Bruins in 2006.
 
The journey was worth it though, as Thomas has emerged as one of the top goalies in the NHL this year. He currently ranks among the NHL leaders in save percentage (1st, .942), goals-against average (4th, 1.98) and saves (6th, 487) while posting an 8-5-2 record.
 
"I can't complain, although I have at various times over the years," Thomas said, joking. "It's not the easiest position, but it's rewarding."
 
The Bruins are reaping the rewards of Thomas' work this year, especially with fellow goalie Manny Fernandez sidelined with a knee injury.

Thanks in no small part to Thomas, after back-to-back last-place finishes the past two years, the Bruins were sitting at 11-7-2 this year heading into last night's game against the Islanders and have shaved more than a goal a game off their team goals-against average from last year.
 
"I think everybody's talked about how important goaltenders are nowadays for the success of a hockey club," said coach Claude Julien. "Having a good goaltender makes a big difference. ... That's what they get paid to do, and every once in a while, you have to rely on those guys."
 
The Bruins have relied on Thomas much more than they anticipated this year. He played well in his first two seasons in Boston, but at times appeared to wear down from heavy workloads. He played in 38 of the final 41 games of the 2005-06 season after being recalled from Providence, then played in 66 games last year - the most for any Bruin goalie in a single season since Byron Dafoe played in 68 in 1998-99.
 
That led Boston to look for help in goal and resulted in an offseason trade for Fernandez, but his balky knee has kept Thomas as busy as ever. Thomas recently started 10 straight games and 11 of the last 12, but he's better prepared for the strain this season.
 
This summer, Thomas dedicated himself to getting in the best shape of his life. He stayed in Boston over the offseason to work with Bruins strength and conditioning coach John Whitesides, who put the 33-year-old goalie through a grueling workout regimen.
 
"I've never been out of shape, in my mind anyway," Thomas said. "But this was a different, more focused kind of workout (program).

"He makes it even harder in person than he does on paper," Thomas said. "Ultimately, it ends up being a good thing. When you're doing it, it's not very fun."
 
A major part of Whitesides' program consisted of taking off the skates and lacing up the sneakers.
 
"(It was) mostly running, but different types of running," Thomas said. "Some sprints, some longer distances, lots of stuff I did not want to do at all, but he coaxed me into doing it."
 
Thomas might have needed a little prodding occasionally, but he's long understood the need to be in top shape to play goal.
 
"The only people who would say that goalie is not an aerobic position, are people who have never done it," Thomas said. "I had teammates in college (at Vermont) in a practice that have gone in net and figured they were just going to have fun and take it easy, but when they're done, they're like 'I'm never doing that again.' And it's not because the puck hurt or anything like that, it's because they're so tired."
 
Thanks to Whitesides, being tired hasn't been a problem for Thomas this year.
 
"I've felt the difference in a lot of situations," Thomas said. "I'm not saying that I won't ever get tired, but I remember against Anaheim we got stuck in our zone for the full two minutes on one of our penalty kills and I was still fresh enough not to give up the goal."
 
Thomas followed up his offseason workouts with continued hard work during the season, which quickly won over his new coach.
 
"It's probably because of his work ethic and his dedication and his desire to compete every day," said Julien when asked to explain Thomas' success this year. "He doesn't only compete in games. What you see in games is the way he is in practice every day, and eventually those guys get rewarded with strong performances and that's been the story with Tim Thomas."
 
It's a story with a happy ending, even if it all started with a big mouth.
 
Douglas Flynn covers the Bruins for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or dflynn@cnc.com.