Despite All Their Tage, Sabres Still Cannot Turn A New Page
9:09 AM EST on December 6, 2023
Tage Thompson cuts a heroic figure on the ice. He towers over people, standing 6-foot-6 without the skates. His face, at 26, has a kind of youthful Peter Parker earnestness to it. And when the Sabres center has actually been on the ice in the last two years, using his long limbs to acquire and control the puck with finesse while also producing staggering power on his shots, nobody has done more to carry Buffalo out of trouble. Thompson scored 38 as a breakout star for the Sabres in 2021–22, then followed it up with an unassailable 47 last year—not quite enough to break Buffalo's 12-season playoff drought, but sufficient for the Sabres' best season by points since the drought began.
For all the unfamiliar optimism that surrounded Buffalo a few months ago, however, they desperately needed a hero on Tuesday night. After an offseason that saw them hyped as potential challengers to the Atlantic's established hierarchy, the Sabres have failed to build any momentum, instead being antagonized by setbacks that have already stuck them in a sizable standings hole. The front office made few changes to a non-playoff lineup from the end of last year, and injuries have weakened that lineup. The Sabres' valued young core feels stuck on a plateau, still learning what needs to come next. Goalie, a huge weakness last year, remains completely unsolved, as potential savior Devon Levi was briefly sent down to Rochester after posting an .876 save percentage in his first eight starts. Worst of all, this team's play has been consistently marked by slow starts—an inability to begin games with any fire in their bellies—allowing early goals that force them to crawl uphill the rest of the way. Center Dylan Cozens even broke out the dreaded S-word after a 6-2 loss to Carolina on Saturday.
"I think we definitely play way too soft. We're too easy to play against and we need to get a little 'FU' in our game," he said.
Re-enter Tage, a man whose size and ability to cut through defenses make him an unappealing target for bullies. A hand injury on Nov. 14 was expected to keep him out for at least a month, but on Tuesday—whether he healed quick or got anxious—Thompson was a sight for sore eyes as he warmed up for a home game versus the Red Wings.
That Detroit was the opponent made this night feel more pivotal. Before the puck dropped on this season, the Atlantic stood out as the league's most compelling division because you could so clearly divide it into established powers and a revolutionary underclass. On top, there was record-setting Boston, Cup finalists Florida, quasi-dynasty Tampa, and Toronto, who's made the playoffs seven straight years. Montreal was the clear bottom, but above them sat Buffalo, Ottawa, and Detroit—losers and rebuilders finally hitting a window where playoffs seemed within reach. Even though Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman said last March that the Sens' and Sabres' recent draftees were "ahead of us" in terms of development, it's the Wings who have been the standouts of the season's first quarter. They sit second in the division, supplanting the fifth-place Lightning, while their peers to the northeast are quickly losing hope.
Anyway, the Sabres were crud at the start of this game, again. The streaking Wings set up invisible hurdles at their blue line and tormented Eric Comrie in goal. Dylan Larkin scored under four minutes in, then Robby Fabbri cued booes from the crowd when he made it 2-0. The Sabres had multiple chances on the power play in the first, which would have been a great opportunity to get Tage involved (he led the team with 20 of those goals last year, and "power play" just sounds heroic). But they were stifled by good netminding from Alex Lyon and, you could say, some bad bounces. It was Detroit in the second who capitalized on the man advantage with a speeding arrow from Mo Seider's stick, then brought shame on the defense via Michael Rasmussen's breakaway to make it 4-0.
Buffalo finally showed up late, holding off more boos at the second intermission thanks to a last-minute Rasmus Dahlin goal on a blue-line back-and-forth with Tage. And when Larkin was temporarily sidelined in the third after a hit in the back, they gained steam for a second. Then, to make it especially interesting, Tage produced his most visible contribution when eight minutes remained, using his humongous body to shield the puck on the boards in the attacking zone before Jeff Skinner forced a turnover and walked into Lyon's office for a third goal.
It was too little, too late, and a Larkin empty-netter sealed two points for the visitors and a measure of revenge for last season, when the Sabres won all four matchups by a combined score of 26-16. Detroit did not forget, and that history loomed over Tuesday.
"They absolutely slaughtered us all year last year, to the point where I should maybe invoice some of those guys [who got] those huge contracts this summer," Wings coach Derek Lalonde said earlier this week.
So much time is left in the season, but the lesson so far is that the Wings, especially as they bring Patrick Kane into the fold, have taken active steps to shore up their weaknesses while the Sabres mostly locked down the pieces that didn't get them to the playoffs last year. Buffalo can point to the moral victory of the third period, or the fact that there's still a clear experience gap between the Wings' older signings and their own baby-faced foundation. But even with Tage at full strength, it's not yet clear that this roster will be enough to challenge the rulers of the Atlantic. Maybe it comes in time; maybe their kids really do possess all they need to find success, and it's a matter of unlocking it. But 12 years was already too long to wait.