BUFFALO – Following a fast start in his return from a two-week absence, Sabres winger Alex Tuch had endured one of his quietest stretches this season, registering just a single assist over a four-game stretch.
Meanwhile, Tage Thompson, Tuch’s center, had been uncharacteristically quiet this month, at least by his high standards, scoring only two goals in 10 outings.
Their struggles, of course, contributed heavily to the Sabres’ recent woes – a four-game losing streak and losses in 10 of their last 12 – entering Friday’s 5-4 win over the New Jersey Devils.
Tuch and Thompson, however, have showcased remarkable consistency most of the season and, sooner or later, they were due to bust out.
On Friday, Tuch scored two second-period goals and Thompson scored in the first to help buoy the Sabres to a much-needed victory at KeyBank Center.
Thompson hobbled to the bench later in the period and briefly left the game after colliding with New Jersey’s Timo Meier. When he returned a few minutes into the second period, many fans in the crowd of 17,101 cheered after he stepped on the ice.
Sabres coach Don Granato said Thompson is questionable for this afternoon’s road game against the New York Islanders.
“It was clear and evident he could’ve not played the rest of that game the way he was moving,” Granato said. “Two versions of Tage today, one was completely healthy and then all of a sudden, that happened that he was half speed from that point forward.”
Tuch scored at 4:50 to put them up 4-2 and a power-play goal at 16:38 to give them a three-goal lead.
Granato said he could tell Tuch, who suffered a lower-body injury last month, was feeling better about himself when he walked in the rink Friday and told his coach to smile.
“Each day he’s better and better,” Granato said. “Him saying that, he could get out of his own head a little bit and seeing the surroundings and, obviously, offer me that advice.”
Tuch said he’s “been a little inconsistent” trying to find a rhythm following his return.
“I’m still trying to get back into it,” he said. “I really pushed hard to get back and sometimes that comes with a little bit more inconsistency and a feeling out process getting back into it when you miss eight games. It’s a lot of games in a short amount of time. Jumping back in wasn’t the easiest, but I thought my teammates really helped me out just pushing and getting back to the grind.”
After Sabres center Dylan Cozens opened the scoring at 6:29, Thompson scored 39 seconds later, his 44th goal this season and 100th in the NHL. Thompson has now scored the most goals in a season by a Sabres player since Alexander Mogilny (76) and Pat LaFontaine (53) in 1992-93.
Thompson’s return lifted his teammates.
“That was big for us,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “He shows character and he’s a team player. He didn’t want to stay out.”
Thompson looked on his game early, pumping two shots on goal.
“He was really assertive early,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said. “You could tell that he just had the mindset of shooting. When he’s doing that, the rest of his game is just going to come naturally. When he’s thinking shot, he’s moving downhill. When you get a man that big moving downhill, he’s tough to stop with the skill he has.”
Granato said Thompson has recently “looked exhausted.”
“The drop of the puck tonight, I thought he had much better jump and he skated better than he might’ve looked this morning,” he said.
Winger Jack Quinn scored the Sabres’ other goal and created Cozens’ goal. Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 27 saves.
Jack Hughes scored twice for the Devils. Yegor Sharangovich and Kevin Bahl scored their other goals. Goalie Akira Schmid stopped only four of the seven shots he faced before Vitek Vanecek replaced him 10:55 into the game.