After the Boston game, I had several people reach out to me in an attempt to explain the visual circus that is Tim Thomas’ goaltending style. This gave me an idea: I decided that over the next few weeks, I’ll be breaking down all the potential goalie matchups the Rangers could find themselves involved in during the playoffs.
The format is going to be a little different since, let’s face it, around here we are more interested in how to beat these goalies than how they modify their leg pads. The categories for this series are going to be General Style, Strengths, Weaknesses and How The Rangers Should Approach The Matchup.
Without further adieu, first up is Tim Thomas…
In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to admit up front that I am not a Tim Thomas fan. For reasons I will explain below, I think he is incredibly overrated and gets the benefit of being a “gamer” to a fault. His style makes him an incredibly polarizing player, mostly because his style itself is something of a Jekyll and Hyde situation. His strengths are incredibly strong, and his weaknesses are considerably weak.
Thomas does not play a traditional style in any sincere form. He may utilize some traditional techniques, but his style is all his own. A lot of Dominic Hasek comparisons are drawn, but I feel those are nothing more than a convenient comparison because they both break the mainstream goaltending paradigm. The Dominator, in his prime, felt that a traditional style was too limiting for him. He wanted to pick the puck up with his blocker and drop his stick when he felt encumbered by it. Hasek was a freak of an athlete who would not limit his ability to move or track the puck for the sake of doing it “correctly”. Thomas simply does the best he can within his physical limitations. He is extremely aggressive and he will use any part of his body to stop the puck, and relies heavily on his defense to bail him out when his aggressiveness gets the better of him.
It is difficult to describe Thomas’ general style without getting into specific strengths and weaknesses. Thomas has several strengths define his game. The two biggest strengths he possesses are his ability to track the puck and his compete level.
Thomas is an extremely focused goaltender who never takes his eye off the puck. If he can see the puck, he will find some way to put a body part on it.
What this puck tracking ability allows him to do is isolate situations where shooters only have one option, and attack. When he is at his best, he finds a shooter with no available passing lanes and ends up 6-8 feet outside the crease cutting down the angle and space the shooter has to operate.
Thomas’s compete level has willed him to two Vezina trophies in the past 3 years. The dude just never gives up on a puck. This is where the strongest link between Thomas and Hasek exists. He is a blue collar guy who takes his job very seriously and never wants to get scored on. He instills confidence in his teammates and fans with his “never say die” attitude between the pipes. He seems to be a good locker room guy (White House antics notwithstanding) and his seemingly strong work ethic make him a player who is easy to root for.
Thomas has several weaknesses that make his bizarre style of play necessary. First of all, he is a very weak skater. Like, barely passable at the NHL-level weak. He does not have strong traditional lateral movement via butterfly slides or disciplined shuffles, which necessitates more of a flailing appearance in his movement.
To me, his biggest weakness is the sacrifice he makes in his unorthodox style when it comes to second and third opportunities. Thomas has become a media darling (again, White House antics notwithstanding) for his unusual style and his highlight reel saves. What is never discussed however, is that positional goaltending has evolved for a reason.
When you watch someone like Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist play, you can see that their relatively stayed movements keep them in the vicinity of the puck, or a short butterfly slide away from the rebound. It allows them to be in a position to stop multiple chances until their defense can clear the puck. Thomas, on the other hand, commits so heavily to the shot he is stopping, it puts an undue amount of pressure on his defense to ensure that the opposition does not get any subsequent chances. It helps that the Bruins have a very strong blue line, but what would this scenario look like on a defensively porous team like Columbus or Carolina?
How The Rangers Should Approach The Matchup
So how do the Rangers beat Thomas? In my humble opinion, there are two major strategies that can be used on the reigning Vezina/Conn Smyth trophy winner: traffic and puck movement.
As mentioned above, Thomas never gives up on a puck. If he can see it, he will flail some body part after it. The Rangers need to create havoc in front of Thomas and obstruct his line of sight. He has fantastic hand-eye coordination and keeping him from seeing the puck goes a long way. Thomas is a very talented goalie in open ice and strong on breakaways. The Rangers need to minimize his unpredictability and get traffic in front and pucks to the net.
Because Thomas is so aggressive, it can be used against him. He has a very good sense of when a play is collapsing around the puck carrier and attacks aggressively. The Rangers are going to have to use quick puck movement and force Thomas to bite. Obviously, this is easier said than done with Boston’s defense, but there were two examples of how to maximize this tactic in the most recent game between the two teams.
On Callahan’s powerplay goal, Thomas aggressively pursued Del Zotto down to the low post, which allowed Cally a simple tap-in. On Anisimov’s goal, he caught Thomas moving out toward him to cut down his lane to the net. Arty recognized this and slipped the puck past Thomas when he was in his most vulnerable state.
Come playoff time it’s not going to be easy. Thomas is the best in the game at recognizing when shooters have no other options, and has one of the better blue lines in the league backing him up. There is a game plan for beating Thomas and the Rangers cannot play into his strengths the way other teams have over the past few seasons.
*I am going to go down the list of playoff matchups by seed, so as we get closer to the playoffs we will be examining the more likely first-round matchups the Rangers could encounter. Next up: Jose Theodore.