SUNRISE, Fla. — For years, Milan Lucic shot at Tim Thomas, hundreds of pucks hitting the goaltender’s stick and his pads and, occasionally, the back of the net. It was the normal routine of hockey practice between teammates. Then the games would start, and Lucic would get to shoot on someone else.
On Thursday, Lucic again will be shooting pucks at Thomas. This time, though, the two will be wearing different sweaters — and it will matter just how many pucks find the back of the net.
“It will be [weird], yeah,” Lucic said. “All those years of shooting on him in practice and whatnot, I think it’ll be fun to finally get to shoot on him in a game. I’m sure he’s looking forward to it as well.”
Thomas will indeed start against the Bruins Thursday night, according to the Florida Panthers’ official Twitter feed, and that ramps up the excitement for a game that otherwise would have been a lackluster matchup against one of the Atlantic Division’s struggling teams.
“Never thought that we would play against each other,” said Tuukka Rask, Thomas’s former backup. “But I mean, I’m glad he’s made his comeback. That’s what people want.”
Asked if he might get a chance to speak with his former teammate, Rask quipped, “Maybe we’ll fight or something.”
Barring a goalie-on-goalie tussle, the real attention will be on whether the Bruins are able to score against Thomas, who declined to speak to the media. The 39-year-old goalie hasn’t exactly started well this season, allowing two goals in a win over Dallas in the opener, then getting pulled from a game against the Blues after letting in five goals. He injured his groin in his next game, and hasn’t played since last Thursday.
The numbers — 5.05 goals against average, .850 save percentage — are surely not up to Thomas’s usual standards, but he does have a knack for performing brilliantly in the biggest games, as those in New England (and Vancouver) can recall.
“Definitely,” said Lucic. “Regardless of how it ended or not, I think there’s still something special with this organization and him, just because of the Stanley Cup and two Vezinas and a Conn Smythe. He was a competitor, and that’s why you expect that level of play out of him.”
Ah, yes, how it ended. There is still some anger remaining at how Thomas cut his ties with the Bruins. He decided not to play the year remaining in his contract after the 2011-12 season, heading out to his home in Colorado to take his mind off hockey.
His rights were traded to the Islanders, though he never played for them. Then he signed a tryout agreement with the Panthers at the start of training camp. On Sept. 26, he was signed to a one-year deal with Florida, setting up a meeting with his former club.
And while the Bruins have played against many former teammates — players from the Cup-winning season have spread out to other organizations — Lucic pointed out that this is the first time this group will face a former goaltender.
That makes it different (as does that anger, of course). And perhaps brings out the competitiveness just a little bit more.
“I do remember the places where I did score in practice, but I’m not going to say, just in case he reads about it,” Lucic said.
“You think back of the saves he would make in games, where he was out of position and he would make his way over and all that type of stuff, so for a scouting report I really don’t know what to expect because a game is much different than a practice.
“I guess you’re just going to have to go on instinct.”
Other members of the Bruins were more nonchalant about the matchup.
“I don’t care,” said coach Claude Julien. “I really don’t care. And I’m saying that in a way that we’ve kind of turned the page on that.
“When I say I don’t care, it’s not about not caring about the person, it’s more about our team. We need to win some games on this road trip. And whoever is in net we’re going to have to beat no matter what.
“I don’t think it’s anything different than playing against guys that you’ve traded. We’ve traded some players that were really popular on our team. You lose players like that that were well-respected in the dressing room and you’ve got to turn the page.
“We’ve got to do the same thing here with Timmy.”
The Bruins are coming off a disappointing loss to the Red Wings on Monday, which dropped their record to 3-2-0 on the season. They struggled with some defensive mistakes, and are not finishing on scoring chances or the power play.
So, yes, the Bruins need wins more than they need a reunion. But they’ll get one, just the same.
They’ll get a chance to play against — and to appreciate — a player who did as much as anyone to get their names engraved on the Stanley Cup two years ago.
“For me personally, I just think as a teammate he’s everything you wanted as far as he came to play every night and he did bring that competitive edge all the time,” Lucic said. “I mean, I’m not going to say anything bad about him because I got to spend five years with him and I got to see him play at the best level that almost any goalie played in those five years.
“So as a teammate, that’s the most you can ask from your goaltender and your teammate. He was a big part of us winning and he was a big part of us having success over those years.”
And maybe a few of them will even get a chance to put a puck or two past him.