Ideally, Tim Thomas would have skated off the American Airlines Center ice with a clean slate to go along with the win in his debut appearance for the Panthers.
“I try to stop every puck,” he said after leading Florida — it’s going to take a while to get used to that reality — to a 4-2 opening night victory over the Dallas Stars. “I don’t look at it as keeping my team in it. My job is to stop them all.”
That’s always been one of the elements that defined Thomas’s greatness during the past decade. Every game, a potential shutout. Every goal against, a personal affront.
Other than Thomas, though, no one was expecting him to be at his Vezina-Conn Smythe-Stanley Cup-winning best. Not yet anyway. A year off from the game, at age 39 no less, was bound to dull the edges a bit.
And dull they were. The truth is, Thomas looked very beatable last night. There were hints of the confidence that made his style-less style so effective in Boston, but the impact of his sabbatical was obvious.
Thomas is at his best when he’s aggressive, relying on guts, instinct and athleticism to stymie opposing shooters. But he has to toe a fine line and on Thursday night he had a hard time finding it.
He wildly overplayed a Ray Whitney blast from the top of the right circle, leading to the Stars’ first goal. His push forced him far beyond the crease, allowing Alex Chiasson to pounce on the rebound, swoop out from behind the cage and bury an easy wraparound into the unattended short side. Maybe Thomas hasn’t yet seen the memo about the shallower nets — and maybe his style will make him particularly susceptible to this play. We’ll see.
He was equally aggressive on the second Dallas tally, sliding out to deny Antoine Roussel’s bid to finish off a two-on-one chance, but leaving the entire cage exposed for a hard-charging Brenden Dillon to bury Vern Fiddler’s feed from behind the net.
Thomas might have allowed a third goal, too, if not for Erik Gudbransson snaking a loose puck out of the crease and then blocking a shot with his ribs late in the game. But those are the sort of gifts you can expect Thomas to offer up from time to time, the price of the way he does business.
But when business is good, Thomas can be the best in the game. And there were moments last night when that fiery, combative presence reared up. There was a wonderful sprawling stop to rob Alex Goligoski of a sure goal. And then there was the blocker to the head of a crease-crashing Dallas forward that led to two fights, and immediately established Thomas as master of his domain.
And when he’s playing like that, even a team that ended up in the cellar last season starts to imagine what’s possible.
“I said after the first period, ‘How good is Thomas?’” Florida’s Scottie Upshall said. “He makes the saves, catches the puck. He’s the backbone of this team.”
Sixty minutes. That’s how long it took Thomas to go from recluse to backbone. Just imagine where he could be a month from now.