- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2011

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. Don’t talk about their epic playoff collapse of last season. And certainly don’t mention their powerless power play.

None of that matters after the Bruins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 on Friday night on Nathan Horton’s goal with 7:33 left in the penalty-free Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

“I’m just happy to see those guys smiling in the dressing room,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “Right now we’re 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 hadn’t reached the finals since 1990, when it lost to the Edmonton Oilers.

The Bruins left far behind the specter of last year’s 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 year’s 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 league’s top goalie.

“I think a lot of people thought I was over the hill,” Thomas said. “I knew it wasn’t true. I put in a lot of work over the summer and I’ve had an unbelievable year. I’ve 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.

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