SUNRISE, Fla. — The puck slipped through Tim Thomas’s five-hole, hitting the back of the net. The goalie’s head went back, his hand and stick up, in a posture of frustration. He had battled the Bruins for 59 minutes, starting slowly then gaining steam, and had held on to give his team a chance to win in the final minutes. They wouldn’t take it.
Instead, the Bruins beat their former stalwart, the man who gifted them the Cup, with a last-minute goal by one of the few Boston players who didn’t suit up next to Thomas. Reilly Smith notched the winner with 59 seconds to go, giving the Bruins the much-needed 2 points in a 3-2 win at the BB&T Center in front of an announced 14,440.
The true attendance number was far less, giving a lackluster edge to a matchup that should have been must-see viewing. Thomas, who cut out on the Bruins with a year left in his contract, was back facing his old team.
And taking the loss.
“You know, I probably should have wanted to win worse,” said Thomas, who faced 40 shots. “I didn’t go into it with that kind of vengeful attitude — ‘oh, I want to beat my old team.’ I went into it approaching it like any other game. There wasn’t that factor.
“I almost felt guilty because it’s my old team. But I’m not going to let that happen again.”
It was strange, seeing Tuukka Rask and Thomas in opposite nets, with Thomas having swapped his No. 30 in black and gold for a No. 34 in red and blue. It was strange for the players, too.
Said Daniel Paille, whose goal with 3:45 gone in the first started the scoring against Thomas, “It’s different. Especially when you play with a guy for so many years, he was part of the big group here. It’s definitely different when you play someone on the other side. In the same sense, we’ve all moved on.”
The Bruins added a goal in the first period, ending an 0-for-12 skid on the power play with a strike by Dougie Hamilton at 12:47. It seemed like Thomas — in his first game since injuring his groin on Oct. 8 — might be showing his age (39) and rust. But Thomas tightened up, allowing his teammates to get back in the game with a goal at 12:32 of the second by former Bruins draft pick Kris Versteeg, and a goal at 14:00 of the third by Jesse Winchester off a failure to clear the puck by Zdeno Chara.
That opened it up for the Panthers, until Smith notched the winner against Thomas.
It was an awkward reunion, one that no one on the ice really thought would happen. But that was Thomas’s doing. He could have returned to the Bruins for the final year of his contract, in 2012-13, but he decided to put hockey on hiatus and clear his head.
It was just the latest in a series of odd decisions that left his teammates puzzled.
“We all know what happened with the White House and all these things, so after that it was kind of tough to read his mind,” David Krejci said before the game. “No one knew what was going on in his head, so it was kind of surprising his decision, but you’ve got to respect it. He has his reasons, it’s his life. I don’t want to comment on his life.”
Krejci, of course, was referring to Thomas’s decision to skip a team trip to the White House in January, 2012, where the Stanley Cup winners were honored by President Obama. Former teammates attended. Thomas chose not to go.
“Obviously we were a little surprised that he didn’t show up for that event, but it is what it is,” Krejci said. “We didn’t talk about it in the room. It was better for our team not to talk about it. So that’s what we decided to do and it was never brought up again.”
Though dealing with the White House situation contributed to Thomas’s exhaustion at the end of his Bruins tenure, he said, “But now I’m tougher and stronger and I could really care less what other people say about that. Again I’ll stand by my decision. I feel I did the right thing.”
That’s not the sentiment expressed by everyone, though. Not about the White House, and not about leaving the Bruins.
“At the time [Thomas quit], there was a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouths, but that being said, it’s also how we won together,’’ former Bruin Tyler Seguin told the Sun Sentinel recently.
Apprised of the comment by Seguin, Krejci said, “If Tyler said that, that’s his opinion. Everybody’s allowed to have their opinion. I just took it the way it was. I never brought it up, I never talked about his business off the ice or his plans. I was fine with it.”
And, ultimately, Thomas is still happy with the decision. He doesn’t regret the way it all ended in Boston, though he clearly wasn’t pleased with the way that played out. He said he had considered the possibility of taking that year off during the season, but wasn’t sure.
As he said, “I told the Bruins, gave them a heads-up that I was considering it and it was supposed to be kept on the down low and it became public. I didn’t want anything to become public. I was pretty sure that there was a lockout coming up and I didn’t have to make a decision for quite a long period of time. I was kind of forced into a corner.”
So he left, disappearing into the calm of Colorado. He didn’t watch hockey, didn’t consider a return — until the playoffs, when he watched the Bruins make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Then the itch returned.
“I made a decision based on what was best for me and my family,” he said. “I felt that the team was in capable hands.
“I knew where Tuukka was in his development, and I was obviously proved right. I went and did something that was incredible for my life and my family’s life and I don’t regret it.
“That’s the most important thing.”
And it was that decision that left him in net against the Bruins in a game in October in Florida saying, after it was over, “Just hurts the way it ended up.”
Many in Boston feel the same about Thomas.