In his last two games since returning from an injury, Florida Panthers goaltender Tim Thomas has looked like a man on a mission. The two-time Vezina trophy winner has been a pleasant surprise for Panthers fans so far this season after not knowing what shape the 39-year old Thomas would be in after taking a year long vacation from the NHL. Thomas strapped the team to his back last Saturday and carried Florida to victory in the Panthers’ 2-1 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild, snapping a three-game losing streak. Thomas faced 31 shots, allowing one goal. That one goal was an errant puck that deflected off the stick of Florida’s Jesse Winchester in an attempt to block a shot. From that moment, Thomas played spectacularly and was the Panthers’ best penalty killer in a five-on-three power play the Wild had at the end of the third period. Thomas showed the confidence and form he had during his prime years in the game against Minnesota, displayed in it’s glory by stopping Minnesota’s resident sniper Zach Parise with one second left in OT with a clutch save. Thomas was perfect in the shootout stopping both Minnesota shooters, Parise and Mikko Koivu. His performance lessened the pressure for Florida’s shooters, Jonathan Huberdeau and Brad Boyes, who both used their slick hands to score on Minnesota netminder Josh Harding.
Despite giving up a flukey goal to lose in the final minute to the Boston Bruins last Thursday, Thomas played solidly last week. When Thomas is on his game, he gives the Panthers a chance to win every night. It has been quite some time since a goaltender of his significance stood between the pipes in Florida. Thomas joins the ranks of Hall of Famer Ed Belfour, 2011 Stanley Cup rival Roberto Luongo, and Panthers legend John Vanbiesbrouck to name a few of the top goalies to stand in Florida’s crease. Thomas has faced 71 shots in his last two games, allowing four goals. The Panthers’ defensive struggles are no secret and were showcased in both their 7-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues (in which Thomas allowed five goals on 28 shots) and their 7-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning (while Thomas was injured). Thomas is now responsible for keeping the puck out of the net for a team that has troubles keeping the puck out of their own zone. As a veteran and a proven winner, he is there to not only keep Florida in games but to hold players accountable for their mistakes and help guide the younger guys on the roster, most notably 23-year old backup goalie Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom could learn a lot from the bench watching Thomas as a student rather than getting lit up like he did in Tampa Bay, helping his development into the Panthers’ anxiously awaited “goaltender of the future”.
Thomas makes the Panthers an interesting team to watch this season. While other Eastern conference teams like the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, and Philadelphia Flyers are struggling heavily, Thomas gives the Panthers a chance to capitalize and rise through the rankings a bit. Thomas can give Florida the opportunity to return to the postseason if and only if he can continue to play the way he has in his last two games and the team in front of him can step up and make his job easier. The Panthers are a team usually cast aside by media and hockey fans alike, but they boast excellent young players and a good crop of veterans. While the team will not mesmerize you with highlight worthy games, they are the type of team that need to outwork their opponents, something they’ve failed at this season. The Panthers are not a team who can run up a score on you and try to play like they can, leading to sloppy plays and turnovers. To borrow a quote from Miracle, Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) tells his team: “You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” That statement rings true to Florida. Thomas needs a hard-working team, willing to grind it out for a win in front of him. If Florida can do this for their goalie, it will provide Thomas an easier workload and truly make the team competitive again.