BUFFALO – Sabres center Tage Thompson scored and also earned the primary assists on rookie Brandon Biro’s first NHL goal and the game-winning goal, so understandably, a terrific defensive play he made late in a three-goal win could be overlooked.
But in Wednesday’s 5-2 road victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, Thompson illustrated his growing maturity by thwarting what looked to be an easy power-play goal.
With Thompson, 26, covering the back side of the net, Sabres coach Don Granato explained, goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen could concentrate on stopping the first shot. When the rebound slid to Cam Atkinson, Thompson collapsed toward the back post and utilized his long reach to stymie the shot attempt.
“His stick was right in there and eliminated it,” Granato said following Thursday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “So having to think and process that way, the essence of that is you learn how to kill plays faster which means you defend less.
“If Tage Thompson has to defend less, that means he’s on offense more, and that’s what we want.”
Right now, having scored four goals and eight points in the last four games, Thompson is one of the NHL’s hottest players entering tonight’s home contest against the Flyers.
Fresh off a career-best 47-goal, 94-point season, he mustered just one goal in the first six games, his only point. Still, he appeared to be on the verge of breaking out. He created offense early, pumping 15 shots on goal during a two-game stretch, including 10 in one game.
“I don’t think there’s any difference, honestly,” Thompson said of his last four outings. “I think I’ve been playing pretty much the same way all season. Just starting to go in for me a little bit now. I think I had chances earlier in the season, they just weren’t going in.”
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Thompson has scored 90 goals since the beginning of 2021-22, the NHL’s eighth-highest total. As he has taken his place among the league’s elites scorers, he has kept evolving and developing others areas of his game.
“No matter how good of a season I had last year, I always want to be better,” said Thompson, who has averaged 19 minutes, 23 seconds of ice time per game, the highest among Buffalo’s forwards. “Obviously, we didn’t make the playoffs. That falls a lot on me. Obviously, I can be better at other areas of the game, whether that’s scoring more, producing more, being better defensively, playing on the kill, all situations, being better in the faceoff (circle).”
As he displayed Wednesday, penalty killing has become a strength.
“That’s something I take a lot of pride in,” said Thompson, who’s part of a group that ranked fifth overall entering Thursday’s games.
Last season, Granato awarded Thompson and winger Alex Tuch, his linemate, penalty-killing duty. Neither player had done it much in the NHL. But Granato and his staff believed two of the team’s top scorers could excel in a different facet.
“It was a long process last year because we weren’t very successful on it,” he said of the penalty killing, which ranked 28th. “But the mission was that we would be successful at some point. We still have a long way to go, we’re not satisfied with it by any means, but the direction has been nice and … this is more familiar territory for (Thompson and Tuch), so they’re executing with higher proficiency.”
Granato said Thompson’s eagerness to kill penalties and take on other duties “is an indicator of why he’s become great.”
“He’s been willing to do that work for years. Years,” he said. “He has been a guy that comes early to practice, on the ice early, stays late, works all summer long. Work, work, work is why he’s become (great). … People could say ‘Oh my God, this great and talented guy,’ and they don’t understand the years that this guy has worked.
“So this fits right with him. Working for reward has been his M.O. for years.”
He added: “He had undeniable skill, now he’s gaining growth and awareness and consistency in patterns of the game and that will make him even more dangerous, as we’ve seen.”
Thompson said he has also focused on improving at faceoffs. Having played right wing until 2021-22, he took just 38 draws in his first four seasons.
“I feel a lot more confident in the faceoff dot,” he said.
He has upped his win percentage each season, jumping from 40.3 to 43.1. Through 10 games this year, he’s at 45.2 percentage. While it might seem like small improvement, every little bit gives the Sabres more puck touches.