BOSTON Vezina Trophy finalist Tim Thomas stopped every shot and gave the Boston Bruins a chance for the biggest prize of all the Stanley Cup.
Forget their 20-year absence from the finals. Dont talk about their epic playoff collapse of last season. And certainly dont mention their powerless power play.
None of that matters after the Bruins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 on Friday night on Nathan Hortons goal with 7:33 left in the penalty-free Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Im just happy to see those guys smiling in the dressing room, Boston coach Claude Julien said. Right now were four wins from winning the Stanley Cup.
The Bruins will open the Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver against the Western Conference champion Canucks on Wednesday.
Boston won its most recent championship in 1972 and hadnt reached the finals since 1990, when it lost to the Edmonton Oilers.
The Bruins left far behind the specter of last years playoff failure. They blew a 3-0 lead in games and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, losing 4-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers.
And this season, they squandered 3-2 series leads against Montreal and Tampa Bay. But they beat the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime in Game 7, with Horton scoring the winning goal. Then the forward, playing in the postseason for the first time in his career after five years with the Florida Panthers, came through again with his eighth playoff goal.
He certainly has played like a big-game player, Julien said.
So has Thomas all season.
The 37-year-old goalie led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage after missing all of last years playoffs because of a hip injury. After offseason surgery, he was as good as ever, and that includes the 2008-09 season when he won the Vezina Trophy as the leagues top goalie.
I think a lot of people thought I was over the hill, Thomas said. I knew it wasnt true. I put in a lot of work over the summer and Ive had an unbelievable year. Ive been blessed.
He made 24 saves in his third career playoff shutout and second of the Lightning series.
Thomas playoff performance is even more remarkable because the Bruins scored just five goals on 61 power plays in the postseason. But there were no power plays for either side on Friday night in the clean, hard-hitting game.
Horton beat goalie Dwayne Roloson by deflecting a pass from left to right across the slot from David Krejci. That set off a loud celebration among Bruins fans, who have waited a long time for a trip to the finals.
With 3 seconds left and the puck in the Lightning zone, Bruins center Patrice Bergeron raised his stick while standing in the spoked B logo symbolizing the Bruins at center ice. And when the game ended, Thomas raised both arms and arched his back against the net that the Lightning never reached in the decisive game as yellow and black towels given to fans fluttered to the ice.
Its great to be a part of something amazing. That was the highest level of concentration I have experienced, Bergeron said. I couldnt wait to jump on Timmy and enjoy the moment.
The Bruins improved to 2-3 in Game 7s under Julien but have won the last two. Theyre 11-10 overall in Game 7s.
Andrew Ference started the only scoring play on the left side behind the red line with a pass to Krejci, also on the left. Horton was on the same side, but when Krejci got the puck, Horton veered to the right. Krejci skated in and threaded a pass to Horton, who put the puck in the open side between Roloson and the left post.
I dont think he could have stopped that puck, and I dont think he could have done better than he did (Friday night), Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. Its hard to look at. One little defensive mistake.
Roloson fell to 7-1 in elimination games during his career, including 4-1 this postseason. Tampa Bay rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Pittsburgh in the first round, with Roloson shutting out the Penguins 1-0 in Game 7 on the road. But after beating the Bruins in Game 6 to force one more contest, the Lightnings comeback fortunes changed.
They have guys that can put the puck in the net and defend, Boucher said. Obviously, theyve got it all.
Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos was struck in the face by a puck early in the second period and briefly left the game. He was hit on the left side of the head off a hard shot from the right point by Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk and he immediately dropped to the ice. There was some blood on the ice when the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008 got up and skated quickly to his bench, holding his face.
He missed about five minutes of game time, then returned with a full cage face shield in place of the visor he had been wearing.
Bostons Milan Lucic had the best scoring opportunity in the first when Krejci fed him for a breakaway. But Lucic shot the puck into Roloson with just under five minutes left.
The Bruins also had solid chances late in the second. Roloson made a pad save on Mark Recchis shot from a few feet away then made another when Recchi shot the rebound with just under 2½ minutes left in the period. The Bruins were denied again with 1:40 remaining when Zdeno Charas shot from the blue line was deflected over the net by Krejci, stationed in the slot.
I wasnt concerned about my team, Thomas said. I was concerned about Roloson playing so well.