Tage Thompson, Devon Levi spark Sabres in comeback win


Staff member

As soon as the puck was within reach, Jesper Bratt snapped it toward the Buffalo Sabres’ net with the New Jersey Devils clinging to a one-goal lead in the second period Friday night.

Devon Levi was ready. The rookie goalie was deep enough in his crease to reach the puck with his right leg, then he took away the bottom of his net to prevent the Devils from scoring on the rebound.

His teammates ensured that it wouldn’t go to waste, either. The Sabres carried the puck to the Devils’ end of the ice, where Tage Thompson scored the tying goal, his second of the game and 24th of the season, with a wrist shot that soared over Jake Allen’s glove.

Thompson completed the natural hat trick in the third period by tipping a shot, then knocking the rebound past Allen, and the Sabres' No. 1 center added his fourth of the game with the net empty to send Buffalo to a 5-2 win over New Jersey in KeyBank Center.

"When he’s feeling it like that, I mean, he’s one of the best players in the world," Sabres winger Alex Tuch said of Thompson. "I feel like he’s dominant out there and he just takes over games and when you’re playing with a guy like that, I’m just trying to create as much room and space and get him the puck as much as possible.

"He’s going to be able to find himself in the slot there for a couple really good, grade-A opportunities and he was able to cash in, so I think that’s huge. If he continues to roll with that confidence, you never know what will happen down the stretch here.”

The game could have gone the other way for Buffalo. Once again, it was down by multiple goals early. Levi and Thompson spearheaded the comeback, helping the Sabres erase a two-goal deficit to improve to 35-34-7 with eight games remaining on their regular-season schedule. In the process, they played the role of spoiler against New Jersey (36-34-4).

The Sabres avoided a meltdown like the one they endured Wednesday night when they were down 5-0 at the first intermission and lost 6-2 to the Ottawa Senators.

New Jersey struck first only three minutes into the game when the puck was deflected twice, first by Devils center Max Willman, to throw off Levi as the Sabres’ goalie attempted to make the save. Then another deflection beat Levi, though this one went off JJ Peterka’s stick after Bratt took a shot from the slot that gave the Devils a 2-0 lead with 9:29 left in the first period.

"I think it's a long game," said Levi, who made 28 saves. "You've got 60 minutes. We're only through the first eight minutes or so by the time they scored two. So, I knew there was still a lot of hockey to be played. It's easy to feel like it's the end of the world. You let in two quick ones, but it's when the mental toughness comes in. That's when you rely on your teammates and you kind of come together as a group and just chip away at it and try to get back into the game."

The Sabres have allowed a league-worst 89 goals in the first period this season, one more than the tanking Chicago Blackhawks, and own a negative-32 goal differential. Buffalo has played behind too often, particularly at home, and early deficits have snowballed until deficits are out of reach.

They were quick to correct their mistakes this time, though. Levi helped them kill two penalties in the first period, including a 26-second 5-on-3, and made a key stop on Erik Haula when the Devils center sent a wrist shot through traffic.

Thompson trimmed the deficit to 2-1 only 28 seconds into the second period when he intercepted an errant neutral zone pass by Timo Meier, crossed the blue line, then snapped the puck with enough power that it went off Allen’s glove and in. The Sabres weren't relying on highlight-reel passes to try to cut into the deficit. They took a simple approach, chipping the puck behind the Devils' defense to pressure New Jersey into mistakes.

"Levi made some huge saves and that gets us some momentum heading into the intermission there, and I think we can kind of catch our breath, focus back up," Thompson said after he finished with six shots on goal. "I think in here we just talked about not letting mistakes compound and turn into three, four, five goals, and I thought we did a great job."

The Devils were desperate. They had won four of their previous six games to claw to within five points of the Washington Capitals for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey used stretch passes to get its forwards behind Buffalo’s defense, a strategy that continued in the second period with Levi stopping Bratt on a breakaway.

Ondrej Palat sent a shot from the slot toward the net that led Levi to deliver another clutch save, and the Sabres’ starter on the first night of a back-to-back forced Jack Hughes wide on a breakaway. Then, Levi made the momentum-shifting stop that Thompson turned into the tying goal.

The Sabres took their first lead of the game with 4:34 left in the third period when Thompson tipped Rasmus Dahlin's shot and deposited the loose puck past Levi. Then, Thompson and Peterka added empty-net goals for insurance.

Buffalo ended Friday six points behind the Capitals for the final playoff spot, though the Sabres still trailed the Devils, Islanders and Red Wings. Thompson's best game of the season, coupled with Levi's heroics in net, provided the spark.

"Tommer stepped up, put four in there," said Levi. "It wasn't him alone. It wasn't an individual effort, although he played an unbelievable game. I think the boys really played well today. Blocking shots, giving him the puck, getting him those opportunities. You put him in a good scoring spot, he puts it post and in, there's not much you can do as a goalie. We had a lot of trust in the locker room that we were going to get it done."

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Special teams​

Levi was a key reason why the Sabres’ penalty kill went 3 for 3.

The forwards and defense were also exceptional in those situations, though. Dahlin, Connor Clifton, Zach Benson and Dylan Cozens are among those who deserve credit for limiting a power play that had scored in six of 17 opportunities in six games entering Friday. Together, Buffalo's penalty kill held the Devils to without a shot on goal during the 5-on-3 and zero high-danger scoring chances.

"I think the kill gave us a lot of momentum," said Thompson. "Obviously, they get two power plays right after going up 2-0 and that’s kind of a dagger. The kill stepped up big-time there."

2. Trending up​

Effort hasn’t been an issue with Thompson. Neither have the scoring chances that the top-line center is creating. According to Natural Stat Trick, no Sabres player has recorded better shot quality at 5-on-5 since February 1 than Thompson. His shooting percentage has dropped, though. He converted on only 3.4 percent of his shots at 5-on-5 in a 23-game span entering Friday.

Thompson’s overall shooting percentage dropped from 15.5 to 10 percent from last season. He has been one of their best players the past two months, though. Thompson has eight goals and 13 points over the past 10 games.

"I feel like throughout the course of the season I’ve had a lot of great chances and maybe been snakebit at times and maybe let that get to me a little bit," said Thompson. "Obviously when one or two start to go in for you, that confidence starts to come back. So, it was nice to have a game like this and get a few and obviously the win is most important. I think that gets everyone in the room feeling good.”

3. Top-line impact​

The Sabres have searched all season for a top line that can produce like Thompson, Tuch and Jeff Skinner did last season.

Granato may have discovered the right combination with Peterka taking Skinner’s spot at left wing. The trio of Peterka, Thompson and Tuch has combined for nine goals and 16 points over the past four games.

Though Tuch has two goals in his last nine games, he’s been a game-changing presence with his impact on the forecheck. He extended his point streak to seven games, and he has 11 points in his last nine games. Tuch’s seven-game assist streak is the longest by a Sabre since Jack Eichel in 2019.

4. Goalie watch​

Despite all that's gone wrong this season, the Sabres have seen the past four months that they've developed a goaltending tandem that could be formidable for years to come.

Levi has stopped 90 of 95 shots, a .947 save percentage, in three appearances since he re-joined the Sabres after a stint in Rochester. Levi stopped eight high-danger scoring chances in the second period, according to Natural Stat Trick.