MINSK, Belarus – In his return to world championship play for the first time since 2008, Stanley Cup champion and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas shut down a determined and aggressive Belarusian team as the U.S. defeated the tournament hosts 6-1.
With Belarus playing on its national holiday, Victory Day, and president Alexander Lukashenko in attendance, the U.S. did well to thwart an early surge in the opening five minutes, Thomas playing an integral role.
“They came at us right off the bat,” Thomas said after the win. “It was their first-ever world championship game on home turf and fortunately we were able to get the win to start the tournament.”
“The first half of the second period, they really put on a push and if they would have got one it could have been a different game,” Thomas said.
The 40-year-old Dallas Stars goalie denied 20 of 21 shots to earn the victory, only allowing a well-executed, power-play goal in the waning seconds of the second period.
“I thought Tim Thomas looked really sharp tonight especially early on. Belarus was very dangerous off the attack, they entered the zone with lots of possession and chances at the net,” said U.S. head coach Peter Laviolette.
“He looked like he was in control tonight, there weren’t a lot of rebounds and when there were, I thought our defense did a good job of clearing them,” Laviolette said.
Thomas is representing the U.S. at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships for the seventh time, his first appearance came in 1995. In 2008, he was between the pipes for the team’s opening two victories over Austria and Slovenia. Tonight’s win improves his international record to 3-2-0 over nine games.
The well-traveled Flint, Mich., native also represented Team USA at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, where he earned a silver medal as the backup to Ryan Miller.
Friday night’s contest at Minsk Arena was a tight, one-goal game until the 35th minute of the second period.
The U.S. exploded for three goals by Jacob Trouba, Johnny Gaudreau and Colin McDonald in a span of 2:43 late in the second period to take a commanding 4-0 lead and put the contest out of reach.
Mikhail Grabovski, a Belarusian forward and member of the Washington Capitals, had kind words for Thomas and his decision to come to Minsk for the tournament.
“I think it’s great that he’s come here at his age, it’s a great decision for him and for our country,” Grabovski said. “Little kids here can watch one of the best players in the NHL play. He played great today. We had so many chances and I think he’s one of the main parts of the U.S win."
Thomas admitted that his biggest challenge thus far in Belarus has been adapting to the seven-hour time difference from the U.S.
“The last couple days, the time change has been kicking my butt,” Thomas said. “I think I slept 1-2 and then 6:30 to 8 this morning. I’ve really been having trouble sleeping. The last few days have really been a blur.
By the look of Thomas’ play and the results on the score sheet, you would think that the veteran netminder had been very well rested entering the tournament opener.
Thomas and Team USA will have little chance to catch up on their sleep as game two is Saturday evening at Minsk Arena against Switzerland.