Thomas/By S. Bradley

Would a 54-28 split of Bruins goaltending starts between Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, respectively, calm the masses by the end of the season?

Because that’s how head coach Claude Julien divvied up the starts during the 2008-09 season, when the Bruins finished atop the Eastern Conference and Thomas won the Vezina Trophy. Thomas started 52, Manny Fernandez 27 and Rask one.

Of course, through 38 games that season, Thomas had made 22 starts and was on pace to make just 44 starts for the season. In the second half, Fernandez’s achy back made him less reliable for Julien to call on so Thomas picked up the slack. By the season’s final weeks, however, Fernandez was practically alternating with Thomas.

Julien has said time and again since he first took the Bruins job that he believes it takes two goaltenders to win anything in today’s NHL. With the youthful, full-of-promise Rask at his disposal, there’s no way Julien’s going to keep on the current pace that would see Thomas make 58 starts. Nor is it likely Thomas will even make the 54 he made it ’08-09.

Thomas had made 24 of 38 starts at this point last season. By the end of year, Rask — who took over as the No. 1 by mid-March — had made 39 starts to Thomas’ 43. While everyone was up in arms this season that Thomas made seven straight starts through Jan. 1 and then had to go in to relieve Rask that night in Buffalo, it’s worth noting that last December Thomas also made seven straight starts at one point (inciting nary a complaint from the peanut gallery). Rask got his turn to start five straight in November, but that was because of an injury to Thomas.

Now if wearing out Thomas is your concern, consider that in ’08-09 he made 54 starts and posted a goals-against average of 2.10 and save percentage of .933. Thomas’ postseason numbers, however, showed little sign that he had racked up so many minutes. Against Montreal and Carolina, he recorded a .935 save percentage and 1.85 GAA — making him the player least responsible for Boston’s early demise in the postseason.

Thomas is now 36, and he’ll be 37 by the time the 2011 playoffs start. Determining whether age will factor in his performance is a tough task. We know his age and that he’s coming off major hip surgery last offseason, but we also know that he is putting up Hall-of-Fame numbers (1.80 GAA, .945 save percentage) this season and seems more spry with his repaired hip. If some baseball pitchers get better after Tommy John surgery, why can’t a goaltender find a little fountain of youth in a hip procedure?

Somewhat inspired by a post today by Marc Foster of Hockey Prospectus involving goaltender workloads, I decided to take a glance and see if there was precedent for a 32-year-old-plus goaltender taking his team deep in the playoffs after carrying a heavy workload during the regular season. Like Foster, I focused on the goaltenders from the last few years’ NHL final four because that’s how far everyone knows the Bruins have to go this season to have their season considered a success after back-to-back second-round flameouts. I used 32 as an age because it fit the research for such a small sample size and because when you look at Thomas’ overall career body of work he’s a “young 36.” (Remember, that was one of general manager Peter Chiarelli’s reasons for re-signing the netminder to a four-year deal).

One comparable popped last season (yes, in the year of the “solid-but-not-superstar” goaltender) with San Jose. The Sharks went three rounds behind Evgeni Nabokov, who made 71 starts before the postseason and posted stats of 2.43 and .922. In the playoffs, his played tailed off slightly and he posted a 2.56 and .907, which was good enough to get to the NHL semifinals.

The 2007-08 Dallas Stars succumbed to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference finals, but Marty Turco improved his numbers from the regular season to the postseason despite making 60 starts. He posted a 2.31 and .909 in the regular season, but then was lights out with a 2.08 and .922 in the playoffs.

Of the 12 goaltenders (including repeat participants) in the last three NHL semifinal series, Nikolai Khabibulin was the closest in age to Thomas at 36 when the Chicago Blackhawks’ run started in ’09. Khabibulin though had split the regular season with Cristobal Huet, 40-40, before taking over as the No. 1 in the playoffs. While Khabibulin’s workload during his regular season — during which he posted a 2.33 and .919 — isn’t comparable to what Thomas will probably finish with this season, it’s telling that there wasn’t a major drop-off in his numbers (2.93, .898) in the postseason, where the competition gets tougher.

If the Bruins are planning on playing Thomas upwards of 60, 70 games, there would be a real reason to be ready to storm the TD Garden and demand the coach’s head. We know both from what Julien has said and done, that he’s probably leaning toward a more-even split than he even used the year Thomas was voted the league’s best goalie. The coach’s decision to ride the hot hand early in the year isn’t without precedent. And there have been goalies in Thomas’ age range that have put their teams on the precipice of the Cup final after playing a lot more games that Thomas is going to wind up logging.

So put the pitchforks and torches down because there will plenty of playing time for both Thomas and Rask over the final 44 games, and they should both be fresh and ready to go come playoff time.