If, years from now, Tage Thompson ever reflects on the Buffalo Sabres’ mid-November loss to the Boston Bruins, he’ll remember one moment above the rest.
Thompson’s goal Saturday night in KeyBank Center won’t top the list, though his team-high 11th of the season, when he skated around Stanley Cup champion center David Krejci on an impressive drive to the net, might be his best yet.
It was a brief conversation with an opponent on Hockey Fights Cancer Night that will stand the test of time. Waiting for a faceoff at center ice, he was approached by Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, who quickly asked Thompson how his wife, Rachel, is doing after she had a cancerous mass removed from her right leg in January 2019.
Each of her bone scans since surgery have come back cancer-free. Further monitoring won’t be necessary if her next scan in the summer of 2023 is clean.
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Bergy talks with Tage Thompson before the faceoff, appears to be nice words. pic.twitter.com/IEMNOP3mv1— Mr. Tenkrat (@PeterTenkrat) November 13, 2022
Back in 2004-05, Bergeron, now 37, was a 19-year-old teammate of Thompson’s father, Brent, with the Providence Bruins during the NHL lockout. Bergeron was a frequent visitor to the family’s home and even played street hockey with a 7-year-old Tage and his younger brother, Tyce.
“It's big,” Tage told The Buffalo News following practice Monday. “Obviously, he didn't have to say anything. He kind of went out of his way to check on her and ask how she's doing. It’s just the kind of guy he is. He's just a genuine guy, cares about other people."
Bergeron scored two goals to help the Bruins come back to beat the Sabres, 3-1, but even his heroics weren’t enough to overshadow another brilliant performance by Buffalo’s top-line center. Thompson, now 25, paced his club offensively with his remarkable goal and again showed leadership with the way he attacked Boston’s net.
His play through 15 games would make Bergeron proud. Entering Monday, Thompson was tied for third in the NHL in goals, four fewer than Connor McDavid’s league-best 15, and 10th in points (19). Since Oct. 29, Thompson leads the league in goals (10) and shots on goal (56), while his 16 points are only one behind McDavid.
Determined to build upon a 38-goal breakout season, Thompson has made complacency his greatest enemy during the grind of the 82-game schedule. He stays on the ice after practice to hone nuances of his job as the Sabres’ most trusted center and wants to produce more than he did during his first season playing the position in the NHL.
“I think I think just being more hungry,” he said. “Hungry to score more, hungry to win, hungry to be better in the D zone. Just trying to out-compete other guys that I'm lining up against. I'm going against other (teams') best D pairs and I just want to be better than them.
"Do whatever I can to help the team win. I obviously still need to get better in other areas of the game. So, those are things that I kind of focus on heading into games, whether it's faceoffs, whether it's D Zone awareness and things like that. I think by doing that, the rest of my game kind of takes care of itself.”
Finally, four-plus years after Tage’s arrival in a blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Blues, he and Rachel can begin to plot their future in Buffalo with their infant son, Brooks.
Rasmus Dahlin couldn’t hide his reaction when Thompson completed a hat trick against Detroit on Oct. 31. Thompson punctuated his career-high, six-point night when he deked around Red Wings defenseman Gustav Lindstrom and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to create a wide-open net.
Dahlin immediately raised both hands to his head in an expression of disbelief when the puck went in, creating a viral moment that encapsulated the behind-the-scenes culture that’s formed with the Sabres over the past 13 months.
Current and former teammates of Thompson’s saw this level of skill from him long before the 38 goals or the seven-year, $50 million contract extension. It wasn’t unusual for him to be the standout of a practice or training camp. His blend of speed, size and skill led him to skate next to Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall on Buffalo’s top line at the start of the 2020-21 season.
Thompson’s work on and off the ice, particularly in the weight room during the summers, helped him rapidly gain confidence and make an impact once Don Granato was appointed as the Sabres’ coach in March 2021.
Granato bolstered Thompson's confidence by giving the 6-foot-6 winger more ice time and opportunity. In the summer of 2021, Granato decided to move Thompson to center at the start of training camp.
The experiment gave Thompson more space on the ice to make plays. And he was strong enough to handle the transition. Thompson was thin when he arrived in Buffalo as part of the Ryan O'Reilly trade. Now, Thompson is an imposing presence at 220 pounds. And he's making plays with the puck that astonish his teammates.
Thompson has 49 goals and 80 points in his last 82 games dating back to Nov. 8, 2021.
“When you see them, it’s crazy,” Dahlin said of Thompson’s goals. “But he does it all the time in practice and even my first year, he did some insane stuff in practice. He’s always been that skilled, so I’m happy to see it in games now.”
This season has brought different challenges for Thompson. He’s not going to surprise any opponent. His name, and those of his linemates, will likely be circled on the dry erase board of other coaches prior to each game. Teams across the NHL know that slowing him down is necessary to defeat the Sabres. And he’s keenly aware how to respond that occurs.
No one can blame Thompson for having the occasional off night. They’re inevitable, even for the most talented players. And he didn’t seem to be at his best in Tampa Bay on Nov. 5, though he had an assist and three shots on goal in 17:55 of ice time during a 5-3 loss. Thompson had four goals in the three games that followed, including two to help the Sabres keep up with the Vegas Golden Knights for two periods Thursday night.
Linus Ullmark of the Boston Bruins entered Sunday leading the NHL in wins (10) and save percentage (.936), and was second in goals-against average (1.95).
Thompson knows what needs to be fixed if he doesn’t play to his standard. On such nights, he tends to slow the play down a bit too much and waits for the puck to reach him rather than working to get it back. He did the latter in three games last week, most notably Saturday night when he stripped David Pastrnak of the puck before attacking the middle of the ice on the highlight-reel goal.
"I think that's kind of something I've been focusing on lately is just attacking more, attacking the net driving, driving when I don't have the puck," said Thompson. "I think just getting to the areas where you're going to score goals. And if you don't score goals, other plays open up from there. So, I think a lot of that too, is just getting stronger over the past couple years.
"I feel like I'm able to use my body a little better than I had in the past and the confidence comes as well. Like, now I know I can do it, and it's just kind of something I've tried to keep doing.
Despite Thompson’s four-goal week, the Sabres have lost five in a row entering their game Tuesday night against the Vancouver Canucks. There were different reasons for each of those setbacks, none more apparent than the lack of NHL experience. Players across the lineup have shown signs of positive progress, some more so than others, and that will need to continue for them to become a consistent team, particularly with 5-on-5 offense and defense.
The progress of Thompson and Dahlin has been more significant, though, because they now have the confidence in their ability to make plays in the NHL, rather than working toward accomplishing that in the future. The Sabres’ coaches are working to get more young players to follow in their footsteps.
“He's realized that he is a top player at this level,” said Granato. “That's one component that's happened. Prior to that, he knew it could happen. Now he realizes it's happened. And he's always been a determined guy. And now he can be determined knowing he can achieve more, in the moment. He was a guy that was determined that he could achieve off in the distance after months of training, after another year of development, after this, and after that. It's now for him. And that's the big difference. ...
“That is what we're going and undertaking at a team level. That's why I say we're doing all the right things to get to that point at a team level, but we're not there yet at a team level. We're gonna get there. There's no no doubt in my mind, we're getting there. So, he exemplifies that.”