WILMINGTON - In a lot of ways, the euphoric alls and the cruel nothings of Game 7s are all Bruins goalie Tim Thomas has ever known.
He had to have his heart shattered first.
After a 5-0 loss to Montreal in Game 7 of the first round in 2008, it had to be in a million pieces.
When he swallowed the bitter pill that was a 3-2 overtime loss to the Hurricanes in the second round in 2009, it could only feel worse.
Carolina goaltender Cam Ward told Thomas he had his vote for the Vezina Trophy. Thomas told him to win the Conn Smythe. But in his heart, Thomas wished it were the other way around.
When the success came, it came in one giant rush last season, a run that led to the Stanley Cup.
First he got payback against the Canadiens with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 7 of the first round. When the Bruins beat the Lightning in a razor-thin 1-0 battle in Game 7 of the conference finals, Thomas held his breath until the final seconds, almost refusing to believe it was true.
And the sweetest Game 7 moment was easily the dominant 4-0 win in Vancouver that clinched the franchise’s first championship in 39 years.
Thomas learned lessons from each of them, he said, but nothing teaches like heartache.
“I think being on the bad side allows you to know that you can fail and life will go on and your life won’t be ruined,’’ he said. “Until you’ve had that experience, it’s real tough to handle.
“So I think that actually gave me an advantage going into the Game 7s last year because of that experience. But having won - in quite a few Game 7s since then - it gives you confidence that you can get it done again.’’
Overall, Thomas is 3-2 in five Game 7s with a 2.04 goals against average.
“It is different,’’ Thomas said. “It’s its own unique beast. It’s nerve-racking and fun at the same time.’’
Before this year, Thomas said, last year’s series with the Canadiens was the tightest he had ever played. This series against Washington makes that one look like a walkover.
Each game has been decided by one goal. Three games have gone into overtime, and in two others, the winning goal came in the last two minutes.
“That’s where experience can help,’’ Thomas said. “The playoffs are tight regardless. In the majority of the tight games, we’ve done a real good job of finding and figuring out a way to be the team that comes out on top.’’
Statistically, Thomas and Capitals goalie Braden Holtby are practically mirror images (both are 3-3 with 14 goals against).
The margin for error is clearly slim, which is why Thomas was visibly upset with himself after giving up two third-period goals in Game 5. Coach Claude Julien made it a point to tell Thomas not to beat himself up.
“I wish I could be perfect and not ever let in a goal,’’ Thomas said. “It eggs me to let in any goals, but I have to put it behind me.
“But being in a situation like we were Saturday night, to have put out what I considered a real good effort the majority of the game and then to get scored on twice in the third period to lose the game, that’s what I was disappointed in.
“I wanted to do anything I could to help us win the next night.”
Thomas stopped 28 shots the next night in the Game 6 win, and no one was surprised by the effort.
“We’re always confident when he’s in net,’’ said Brad Marchand. “He’s such a good goalie and seems very focused right now. So hopefully he puts another great game on the ice right now.’’
Thomas is wearing his best poker face, too.
He won’t say whether he’ll be more conservative or take more risks because of the stakes.
He’ll sum up his mind-set as simply as possible: “Hold them off the board as much as possible and trust in my teammates to get the rest done.’’
But he knows the toll a Game 7 takes when you lose and the payout that comes when you win.
“If you want to be the one that comes out on top in Game 7, you have to be the one that’s willing to pay the price,’’ Thomas said. “The one that’s prepared to give everything you have inside you.’’