Panthers will keep playing Team USA candidate Thomas ‘a lot’

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Tim Thomas has started 10 straight games since Peter Horachek took over for Kevin Dineen as the head coach in Florida and, if Horachek has his way, that number could double before another goalie gets a shot.

“He is the strength back there. He’s our best penalty killer. He’s an important factor,” Horachek told the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “The fact that he’s playing all the time is just because we need to keep pushing forward.

“We’re going to utilize him a lot.”

All things considered, Thomas has been impressive after a year-long NHL sabbatical. The Panthers are bad and he missed extensive time early with a groin injury, but has still managed to post a 6-8-1 record with a .909 save percentage and 2.75 GAA. The 39-year-old had arguably his finest outing of the season in a 3-1 win over Philly on Monday — stopping 38 of 39 shots — and has helped the Panthers secure points in four of their last six games.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported Thomas had played well enough to make USA Hockey’s shortlist of six goalies for the 2014 Olympics, along with Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop and Jonathan Quick.

As such, Horachek’s remarks about maximizing Thomas’ workload become quite interesting. It sounds as though he’ll have numerous opportunities to both showcase himself and knock off any lingering rust from his time away from the game, which would be two big pluses for his Olympic candidacy.

“He’s a difference-maker,” Horacek said. “The fact that he could take a year off and come back and play shows what kind of goaltender he is.”