Tim Thomas has done some remarkable things on the young season, but if there's one thing that he's shown, it is that his left hip is even more interesting than his goals against average.
Thomas and the hip, which he had offseason surgery on, have emphatically silenced naysayers as he, at 7-0-0 on the season, has reached perhaps the highest level of play in his career after facing the ups and downs of the last two seasons.
Coming off a Vezina-winning season in 2008-09 that saw him lead the NHL in goals against average (2.10) and save percentage (.933), Thomas was rewarded with one of the most talked about contracts in town, a four-year, $20 million pact that would account for a $5 million cap hit that wouldn't relent until Thomas was 39 years of age.
Last season, the first of the new contract, served as reason to doubt the deal's rewarding. While Tuukka Rask was emerging as the perhaps the more viable of the team's netminding options, Thomas was a mid-30's goalie dealing with a hip injury and less-than-stellar play (with the latter to be taken more literally than perhaps it was. Though Thomas was certainly not playing at the level that earned him a Vezina a year prior, his numbers were no worse than those of a middle-of-the-pack starter. His 2.56 GAA was 16th among goaltenders who played more than 30 games, and his .915 save percentage put him 15th among the same group).
"By that time, I knew that something pretty bad was going on with my hip," Thomas said on Dale & Holley this week. "But I knew that I wanted to finish the year and get myself in the kind of condition I needed to be in to play if I was needed and called upon. The last two months of the year I worked extremely hard rehabbing the hip without surgery. I wasn't fixing it, but through rehab work, I'd actually got that area really strong."
THE HESITANCE THAT COULD HAVE COST THOMAS
The progress that Thomas was able to make in rehabbing the hip was so encouraging that by the second round of the playoffs, he felt capable of playing at a higher level than he'd been able to reach at earlier points in the year. Rask served as the starting netminder throughout the playoffs, and when the team was eliminated by the Flyers, Thomas felt optimistic enough that he gave serious consideration to simply taking the summer to continue the rehabbing and not having surgery.
The issue with the choice Thomas faced was that it was difficult to gauge through testing just how bad his torn labrum was. Thomas had surgery planned for May 21 with orthopedic surgeon Bryan T. Kelly, who had performed the same surgery on Red Sox infielder Mike Lowell and had also worked on David Krejci's hip, but the 36-year-old weighed the options literally until the last minute.
"There was a talk the day before, actually, the afternoon before the surgery, we continued the talk with the doctor," Thomas said this week. "An MRI can't really show that much in that area, and you didn't know what was going on there, so there was discussion with the doctor, with my wife, like, 'Do I do this [or] do I rehab it really hard?' because I was starting to feel pretty good at the end of last year. Would the time off in the summer help? It was a tough decision."
Kelly felt that the surgery, which consisted of fixing tissue, reshaping bone, and "eliminating the constant impact of the femur against the socket," was necessary, and Thomas obliged. As Kelly went about the procedure, he immediately realized his belief that the goalie needed the surgery was correct and was surprised that Thomas had been able to play through the injury.
"It was amazing," Dr. Kelly told WEEI.com this week. "He had a very, very big tear and a big bone spur. I'm sure he was in a lot of discomfort as a result of it."
Thomas said that the ultimate factor in his decision was that he still had three years left on his contract that he wanted to make good on. He recently suggested that had he been entering the final year of his deal, he probably would not have gotten the surgery and instead tried to push his way through the season.
Kelly is glad that for Thomas' sake, he chose against letting the tear go unprepared.
"I don't think he'd have been able to play with his hip the way that it was," Kelly said. "I think he would have been the same as he was last season, where he felt very limited by it. The game is so reliant on his split second reaction time that it doesn't take much to throw it off. A tear of that size and magnitude… he'd be able to play [at some] level, but not at the level that he's playing right now. He'd be playing through pain and he'd be playing through a lot of frustration if it weren't fixed."
Right now, Thomas is, surprisingly or not, the best goaltender in the NHL from a statistical standpoint. His 0.72 GAA and .977 save percentage are far and away tops in the league, and he has allowed multiple goals in a game just once, which occurred when he gave up a pair of goals to the Sabres on Wednesday.
Thomas' signature wild style of play, which consists of him flopping about and yields plenty of diving saves, has once again earned him major success. It is his style, however, that makes Kelly all the more sure that Thomas likely would have worsened the tear had he played with it.
"I think the risk with playing aggressively, particularly with a butterfly style goalie, where you're really hyper-rotating your hip, the risk is that you can grab the edge of the tear and propagate the tear, kind of like tearing a piece of paper," Kelly said. "I think it would have been highly probable that it would not only stay the same, but it would have likely gotten worse."
Thomas can recall Kelly telling him following the procedure that they had "definitely made the right decision." It's paid dividends for both Thomas and the B's thus far.
THOMAS' HIP VS. MIKE LOWELL'S HIP
Had Thomas not gotten the surgery at the time that he did, he not only risked not being healthy enough to play this season, but he risked something that would have plagued him long after his playing days were over.
If arthritis were to set in, which it had in Lowell's case after the 2008 season, the damage, so to speak, would have been done. Had that last-minute discussion resulted in Thomas not getting the surgery, his risk of arthritis could have increased, at which point surgery wouldn't have necessarily made everything better in the long run.
"The earlier that you identify the problem and fix it, the better chance you have at having not only a good immediate outcome from it, but also a good long-term outcome," Kelly said. "Left untreated, often times the hips progress to a state of cartilage generation that ultimately results in hip replacement. The earlier that you can fix the problem before there's any permanent injury or irreversible injury … the better the longterm prognosis."
According to Kelly, the standard recovery time from the surgery, which is between four and six months, wouldn't necessarily be changed by the patient having arthritis, but it likely wouldn't have taken as well.
With Thomas getting the surgery at the time he did, he is no more prone to arthritis than the average person, which, as someone who has a family and enjoys fishing and hunting, is a very welcomed news.
ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD
The turnaround that Thomas has seen since the surgery is quite remarkable. The numbers that sat right around the middle of starting goaltenders have skyrocketed to far better than any other netminder in the league. Rask, while not playing poorly in the slightest, has been able to start just two games, only one of which has come following Thomas' first start of the season back on Oct. 10 in Prague.
All that Thomas has been able to accomplish in the early part of the season, he has been able to do without the nagging discomfort of the hip.
"It's repaired," Thomas said. "It's fixed. It's not one of those injuries where it's better, but not fixed. This one's fixed."
Thomas said this week that he would peg his health at 98 percent, which is better than he could have said of himself a season ago. The two percent of discomfort is felt only at night, according to Thomas, and he feels he is totally capable on the ice.
"There's a lot of different things," Thomas said on Dale & Holley. "I could only recover with one leg last year. I couldn't recover with the opposite leg. That's changed my game just in itself a lot. It's made me quicker to get to rebounds. Depending on which side the rebound went to last year, I had to get all the way up before I could move to that direction. Now, I can move on my knees in both directions, which I couldn't do before."
Thomas also said that scrambling around and falling backwards on the puck, something that is crucial with his style of play, was far less feasible last season.
"I can remember a couple of goals specifically last year, where the puck just barely made it through me. It didn't go in the net [yet], it was just put behind me, but I couldn't do anything to fall back on it or sit on it to cover it," he said. "I remember one example against the New Jersey Devils, Zach Parise was able to just reach around me and put it in, so those types of situations, I'm able to do this year."
Now playing at a level never reached by a Bruins goaltender to start the season (Thomas' win on Wednesday helped him surpass Tiny Thompson for the best start by a goalie in franchise history), Thomas can see that a lot has changed from a season ago. Feeling physically restrained and not playing at the level he knew he was capable of took its toll at points.
"Not that I didn't know that I could do it, but at the time I was struggling to do it and I couldn't figure out why, exactly," Thomas said. "I never lost the deep-down confidence, but the day to day confidence, that got hurt at times."
The man behind the repair that rejuvenated Thomas and has the town buzzing about the Bruins could see that the surgery was something that was not only necessary, but greatly beneficial to the B's goalie.
"I was very excited about the way the surgery went," Kelly said, "and I think he's going to be great."