Thomas led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years, once again proving the doubters wrong with an amazing resurgence as he celebrated his 37th birthday in style during the club's playoff run.
He also helped inspire at least one imitator, as 38-year-old Edmonton netminder Nikolai Khabibulin appears to be following Thomas' exact formula to an unexpected rebound season this year.
"Obviously for an older guy like me it's encouraging to see somebody else being up there in age putting on a performance like that," Khabibulin said of Thomas. "If you look at it from a positive standpoint, I guess it gives everybody a chance."
Khabibulin hasn't given opponents much of a chance this year. Heading into Thursday's clash with the Bruins at the Garden, he's 7-0-2 with a microscopic 0.98 goals-against average, .964 save percentage and two shutouts through nine starts. Those are numbers very comparable to Thomas' stellar start last season, when he opened the season 8-0-0 with a 1.38 GAA, .959 save percentage and three shutouts in his first nine games.
The similarities go beyond the numbers and their ages. Both goalies had been at the pinnacle of their profession in previous seasons, with Thomas winning his first Vezina Trophy in 2008-09 and Khabibulin leading the Lightning to the Cup in 2004.
Both had dealt with injuries threatening to derail their careers, with Thomas requiring hip surgery after the 2009-10 season and Khabibulin needing back surgery that same season and also suffering groin and eye injuries last year. Khabibulin has also had to deal with off-ice issues, serving a brief jail sentence this summer for a 2010 drunk-driving conviction in Arizona.
And both were being pushed by talented young understudies, with Tuukka Rask temporarily unseating Thomas two years ago and Devan Dubnyk threatening to do the same to Khabibulin.
Thomas admitted that he hasn't seen Khabibulin play a lot this season with the Oilers in the Western Conference, but does believe there could be some similarities in their situations.
"I don't know too much about his situation," Thomas said. "Obviously I heard about this summer, but you know, in a certain way that will make you value what you've got. … My guess is he was very focused and highly motivated for this year to come out and prove something. That's what happened with me anyway. I don't know if that's what happened in his circumstance."
Thomas saw his outstanding start last season resulting from a number of different factors, and speculated that Khabibulin could be experiencing some of the same things.
"It was a combination of things." Thomas said. "I was highly motivated to prove something, combined with the fact that at the time I was really enjoying playing and enjoying the fact that I was in the game and playing at the highest level in the world because I wasn't taking it for granted because of the season before, and Khabibulin might feel like he's in the same shoes too between the injuries and what else went on in the other areas of his life. You kind of realize how fine the line is when all of the sudden it could be gone, so he's probably getting extra enjoyment out of playing the game because of that."
Just as Thomas' hip surgery helped rejuvenate his career, Khabibulin admitted that finally getting some relief from the back pain that's plagued him the last couple years has been a major factor in his success, while also crediting the improved play of his teammates in front of him.
"I thought it was going to be that way for the rest of my life and I just had to get used to it and deal with it," Khabibulin said of the back pain. "But after the season I did a lot of the same stuff over the summer, worked out more and it feels a lot better now. I really feel pretty good now.
"I think it's a number of things probably," Khabibulin added. "A number of little things that when you put them all together they make a difference. It's still early in the year so we'll see how it goes, but I think part of it is physically I feel a lot better. I think we're more committed on defense, whether it's defensemen or forwards backchecking and taking away odd-man rushes. We've got some bigger bodies in front of the net so guys block a ton of shots. If you put all those things together, it helps."
As Khabibulin noted, it is still early in the season. The real test to see if he can come close to matching Thomas' historical campaign of a year ago will come with how well Khabibulin is able to sustain this level of success. Thomas' play never fell off last season, as he finished with a league-leading 2.00 GAA and an NHL record .938 save percentage, then improved both numbers with a 1.98 GAA and .940 save percentage in the postseason en route to Conn Smythe honors.
"I think he has similar numbers, but the one thing he hasn't accomplished yet is to keep them up for the whole year like Timmy did," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Khabibulin. "That's not an easy task. Every once in a while, especially in front of a young team, he may be asked to stand tall for them a lot, but will he be capable of doing it night after night? That's the challenge that he has. And the challenge we have is to break that trend [Thursday]. We have to find a way to get some pucks past this guy."
If he is truly following Thomas' blueprint, that won't be easy. But at least the Bruins will have the original version guarding their cage down at the other end of the ice.
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