BUFFALO – Earlier this season, as Sabres winger Tage Thompson struggled offensively, the thought of producing points consumed him.
“The first couple weeks, all I’m thinking about is I’m struggling to put up points,” said Thompson, who had scored three goals in the last four games entering Tuesday’s tilt against the San Jose Sharks.
Not surprisingly, Thompson’s entire game suffered. His confidence dipped. Following seven pointless outings, coach Phil Housley yanked him from the lineup.
“The first couple weeks, all I’m thinking about is I’m struggling to put up points,” said Thompson, who recorded an assist in Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks and has scored three goals in the last five games.
Just weeks earlier, Thompson’s strong training camp had forced the Sabres to keep him.
“He won a spot on the team in training camp, that’s what we saw first, he really attacked the game, he was playing with emotion and passion,” Housley said.
The 6-foot-6, 205-pound Thompson said sitting out three straight contests and seven of nine allowed him to “take a step back and kind of regroup.” He spent extra time on the ice and in the video room dissecting his game with coaches.
“Anytime you take a step back it’s not a bad thing,” Housley said. “He took it the right way. He wanted to learn, he’s very coachable, he wants to get better.”
In the last two weeks, Thompson, 21, has often looked like a slick power forward, compiling three goals and four points. His wicked one-timer from the left circle briefly put the Sabres up late in Saturday’s 3-2 win in Detroit. He later tied the shootout, keeping the Sabres alive against the Red Wings.
“I know I’m capable of playing that way,” said Thompson, who scored three goals in his first 54 NHL games. “That’s why it’s been so frustrating the first couple weeks when you’re not at the level you want to be in. I think I put too much pressure on myself at times.”
Housley said: “The last five games, you saw the player that was in training camp. Now he’s getting more minutes and now he’s getting more confidence. I just really like where he is in his development at this point.”
Sabres winger Kyle Okposo, who skated with Thompson and center Casey Mittelstadt on Tuesday, said the youngster embraced the Sabres’ plan to help him improve.
“Now you see kind of it paying off,” Okposo said. “You see the confidence budding from him and he scores a big goal last game. Last couple games, not even the goals, if you watch some of the plays he makes in his own end, the confidence that he has breaking the puck out, making those little plays is very evident.”
Okposo remembers Thompson coming in the Islanders’ dressing room as a teenager years ago – “He was tall, for sure,” he joked – with his father, Brent, who was one of New York’s assistant coaches.
“Knowing his dad, there’s no way he’s not going to have a good attitude,” Okposo said.
He added: “I’m sure that his dad is still making sure that he has the right attitude.”
An upper-body injury sidelined Sabres winger Conor Sheary on Tuesday, meaning Remi Elie played again.
Of course, Housley might’ve kept Elie, his 13th forward much of the season, in the lineup if Sheary could play.
In his first appearance following 10 consecutive healthy scratches, Elie, 23, stood out Saturday.
“He provided a big spark for us,” Housley said. “He was really tenacious on the forecheck, he almost scored his first shift. It’s good to see him bounce back and get an opportunity.”
Housley also played Elie, a preseason waiver claim, late in regulation of the 2-2 game.
“I’m a pretty good defensive player and I take a big role in that defensive zone,” said Elie, who has played six games this season.
Housley has also utilized his depth on defense, often swapping Nathan Beaulieu and Casey Nelson.
Elie had made consecutive appearances once this season, way back on Oct. 6 and 8, the second and third games.
“The depth of our forwards, it says a lot,” Housley said. “In an 82-game schedule, you’re going to have injuries, you’re going to have opportunities for other guys to step up. I just really like the balance that we have as far as the forward position goes.”
Housley said Sheary is day-to-day. The injury, he said, is related to what Sheary suffered early in training camp.
“We’re just being precautious with it,” Housley said. “We’ve had a lot of games recently.”
With Sheary out, winger Zemgus Girgensons returned after sitting out last game.
Beaulieu played because defenseman Marco Scandella missed the game for an undisclosed reason. Housley said Scandella’s absence would be only one game.
Beaulieu scored 4:14 into the third period, racing to the net to connect on winger Sam Reinhart’s pass.
“He really stepped up with Scandy being out,” Housley said. “He was really sharp tonight. Not (just) that he scored, I thought his puck movement, the away he attacked the game, his speed, was really solid tonight.”
The Sabres also recalled defense prospect Lawrence Pilut from the Rochester Americans before the game. The Swede, 22, skated in the warm-ups but was scratched.
Before Tuesday’s game, Housley and his coaching staff posed for a photo with each of them holding placards with “Lori Ward” written on them.
Ward, the wife of Sabres assistant coach Tom Ward, is fighting cancer.
On Tuesday, “Hockey Fights Cancer Night,” the Sabres handed out special scarves and placards with a space where fans could write the name of someone battling cancer they’re fighting for.
“Cancer’s touched everybody in one form or another,” Housley said. “I know my mom passed away in 2000. I’m fighting for her. In my family there are some relatives that have passed away. The NHL’s done a terrific job of addressing this disease.”
On Tuesday, former Sabres winger Evander Kane played his first game in Buffalo since the Sabres traded him to the Sharks last season.