Perhaps it was out of a sense of obligation — after all, he hadn’t landed a hit all night, unlike in Game 3 — that Tim Thomas stepped out of his crease, reached back with his Reebok battle ax, and tagged Alex Burrows on the back of the leg.
The Bruins were up, 4-0, in the third period, a lead they’d hold until the end of Game 4 in this Stanley Cup Final. Burrows, the Vancouver agitator, had been in Thomas’s face on previous shifts.
“They’ve been getting the butt end of my stick,’’ Thomas said. “They’d been getting it a couple times on the power play in the first period. I don’t know exactly who it was.
“That was the third time he’d hit my butt end on that power play. I thought I’d give him a little love tap and let him know, ‘I know what you’re doing. I’m not going to let you do it forever.’ ’’
The Canucks have been grousing that Thomas has been straying from his net and initiating contact. On this play, Thomas proved them correct.
Thomas slashed Burrows. Burrows came back at Thomas. The goaltender responded with a shove, which prompted a net-front melee at 18:09. After the scrum cleared and Thomas’s face flashed on the TD Garden scoreboard, the crowd responded with one of its loudest ovations of the night.
They love their Battlefly Goalie.
“He’s had so many obstacles in front of him that he’s overcome that it makes him a battler,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “It makes him the perfect goaltender for our organization, because that’s what we are — we’re a blue-collar team that goes out, works hard, and earns every inch of the ice that you can get.’’
Thomas stopped all 38 shots he saw to backstop the Bruins to the 4-0 Game 4 win. He picked up his fourth career postseason shutout and third of this run.
Thomas was so sharp and his teammates so good that most of Vancouver’s chances were one-and-done. Thomas either sucked in pucks or watched his teammates clear the rebounds.
On offense, Rich Peverley, first in line to replace the concussed Nathan Horton, scored two goals — the second being the one that prompted Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault to swap Roberto Luongo for Cory Schneider in the Canucks net.
In the second period, Michael Ryder snapped a shot that deflected off Sami Salo’s stick and beat Luongo, and Brad Marchand took advantage of defensive-zone turnovers by the Canucks to score a goal that made it a 3-0 game.
The Bruins aren’t just back in the series, which is now tied at 2-2. They have grabbed the Stanley Cup Final by the throat.
In Game 3, they thrashed the Canucks by an 8-1 count. Last night, they chased Luongo — the shell-shocked goalie has seen 12 pucks enter his net in the last two games — and recorded a victory that might have been even more one-sided than the previous one.
Now the Bruins hold their fate in their gloved hands heading into Game 5 tomorrow at Rogers Arena.
“We have to bring our game,’’ Julien said. “That has to continue in Vancouver.’’
It starts and ends with Thomas, who has matched his unorthodox style by landing in some strange places on the scoresheet. In Game 3, Thomas was credited with a hit for his third-period body slam of Canucks captain Henrik Sedin.
Last night, he didn’t record any hits. But Thomas added to his penalty-minute total — he had 13 PIMs during the regular season — with his third-period chop-and-drop of Burrows.
It was justice for Burrows, the Game 1 nibbler of Patrice Bergeron’s right index finger. Even before last night’s game, Burrows added to his villainous résumé. At the start of warm-ups, before the Bruins emerged from the runway, Burrows violated hockey etiquette by shooting a long-distance puck on the Boston net.
Asked about Thomas’s affinity for the rough stuff, Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said, “I think he enjoys it. He loves to battle, he loves a confrontation, and loves the physical play, as you saw the last couple games. I don’t think it bothers him, for the most part.’’
The Canucks have made a point of noting Thomas’s aggressive play. Vigneault said he addressed Thomas’s out-of-the-crease approach with league officials.
“He seems to think that if he’s out, he’s set, and makes the save, he can go directly back in his net without having anybody behind him,’’ said Vigneault. “Well, that’s wrong. He’s got the wrong rule on that.
“If we’re behind him, then that’s our ice. We’re allowed to stay there. We’ve talked to the NHL about that. We’ve talked to the NHL about him initiating contact like he did on Hank. They’re aware of it. Hopefully they’re going to handle it.’’
For his part, Thomas hasn’t been rattled by Vancouver’s gamesmanship. He has retreated into a cocoon, spending time with his children and avoiding anything written or uttered about the Cup, himself, his team, or the opposition.
Seems to be working.
“I’ve felt so good in the Final so far,’’ Thomas said. “I’m just going to keep doing the same things I’ve been doing.’’
The Bruins will be happy with just that.