Tage Thompson is looking like his old self, and that’s just what the Sabres need


Staff member

Don Granato didn’t like what he saw from Tage Thompson in his first two shifts against the Seattle Kraken on Tuesday, so he quickly put him on the third line and replaced him with Casey Mittelstadt. Thompson was a non-factor the rest of the night against Seattle, failing to register a shot on goal in the 5-2 loss.

In the 48 hours between then and the Sabres’ game against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night, Granato had multiple individual conversations with Thompson and could tell Thompson wasn’t happy with how he played. On Thursday, Thompson was back on his usual line and looked like the player who scored 47 goals last season.

With the game tied 1-1, Thompson carried the puck the length of the ice and snapped a shot by Joonas Korpisalo after a quick toe drag. A few minutes later, Thompson scored a power-play goal with another perfect shot.

“He’s just got so much confidence with the puck,” Dylan Cozens said. “You can see, when he has that confidence, he’s just making guys look silly out there. He’s shooting the puck with authority. Those two goals were pretty hard shots. That’s the Tage we all know and love, and hopefully we see a lot more of that the second half of the year.”

Thompson now has 14 goals and 13 assists in 32 games. He missed three weeks after blocking a shot against the Boston Bruins. The Christmas break helped him get back to 100-percent health and he’s now playing without the brace he needed to wear when he first returned. He has six points in four games since the start of the new year.

His two goals on Thursday helped the Sabres build an early lead that they hung onto in a 5-3 win. But Thompson didn’t get through the game without more bumps and bruises. He took a stick to the face midway through the game and briefly had to go to the locker room. He returned but didn’t play the last few minutes of the game with what looked like a separate issue. Granato said he expects Thompson to be OK but that the team would learn more on Friday.

The Sabres desperately need Thompson to be OK. They were already without leading goal-scorer Jeff Skinner on Thursday and are clinging to slim playoff hopes as it is. Thursday was a reminder of how much different the Sabres look when Thompson is playing like one of the most electric goal-scorers in hockey, and they can’t afford to have him out of the lineup.

“He’s a dangerous guy when he’s playing with that type of urgency,” Granato said.

Quick hits​

1.Skinner is “week-to-week” with an upper-body injury. Granato said it’s not a broken bone but rather a soft-tissue injury. The team is going to do another MRI next week to get a better idea of the timetable. But with Skinner out, the Sabres bumped Casey Mittelstadt to the top line at left wing, next to Thompson and Tuch. They also put Jack Quinn in Skinner’s spot on the top power-play unit. Skinner leads the team with 17 goals and is second with 33 points, so that’s a lot of offensive production to replace.

But, as of Thursday, Granato said the team didn’t feel like it needed to call up a player from the AHL. We’ll see if that changes as they get more information. Jiri Kulich has had a busy few weeks of travel after playing in the world juniors in Sweden and then heading to Charlotte with the Amerks to play in an outdoor game. He’d be a logical call-up candidate once he gets settled.

2. One unexpected ripple effect of Skinner’s injury is that Jordan Greenway was playing center on the third line. He played between Kyle Okposo and Zach Benson on the third line and handled the responsibility well. The Sabres out-chanced the Senators 6-1 when that line was on the ice at five-on-five, and Greenway led all forwards with 19:34 of ice time. The Sabres have just under 53 percent of the scoring chances when Greenway is on the ice at five-on-five this season, and that’s the best mark on the team. His defensive game has been solid all season, and that was especially evident in this win.

3. This was a confidence-boosting night for some of the younger Sabres. Peyton Krebs and JJ Peterka both scored their first goal since Dec. 11. Dylan Cozens had a nice assist on Peterka’s goal and then got an empty-netter for his first goal since Dec. 19. Owen Power got in on the action, too, carrying the puck up ice to start the play on Peterka’s goal. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, the Sabres will be looking for those four young players to be a part of what they’re building into the future, so every bit of confidence could help.

4. The Sabres set a season-high in this game with 27 blocked shots. Ryan Johnson, who returned to the lineup after he was a healthy scratch for three games, led the way with six blocked shots.

“We were in the middle of the rink,” Granato said. “We weren’t running out of position. Obviously, the net’s in the middle of the rink, and when you’re in the middle of the rink, the puck’s going to come to you. And you’ve got to be willing to block shots — but you can’t be caught in outside ice. And, you know, we didn’t reload the middle of the rink the other night well enough. And that was a big point of emphasis tonight.”

That’s the type of desperation the Sabres need to play with more often. They are 4-2 in their last six games and have the surging Vancouver Canucks coming to town Saturday for the third game of Buffalo’s six-game homestand.

“We want the wins,” Krebs said. “We know the taste and what it feels like to lose, and it’s not fun.”