It's been 12 years since the Buffalo Sabres cast a discernible shadow, and they've already burned through one franchise-changing player in Jack Eichel, so it seemed that when he fell out with management and forced a trade to Vegas, the Sabres were doomed to another decade or so of, well, Sabrehood. Starless, and hopeless.
And maybe they are. Hopeless, anyway. After all, even after last night's 9-4 throttling of the Columbus Blue Jackets they are still in the bottom quarter of the Eastern Conference, and even though they are the first team in the league to score 100 goals, they are still, well, Sabre-y.
But starless? No. Tage Thompson, the 25-year-old top-line center who has become Buffalo's most important non–Josh Allen, is doing what Eichel never quite could, which is to capture the disillusioned Buffalo sports fan, and Wednesday's four-goals-in-11-minutes performance is, for lack of a better term, pretty incarcerating.
Thompson scored five in all, in just 14 minutes of ice time, reminding casual fans everywhere that hockey is at a disadvantage of not being able to showcase its best offensive players for even half a game. But concentrated Thompson is almost as riveting, and this is already his second six-point game of the season. It makes a body wonder how it is the Sabres are still as lame as they are (the answer is at the other end of the rink, as these things usually work), but it also makes one wonder at least a little bit how he ended up playing so little. I mean, it is not in the sport's culture to put individual achievements so front and center, but it is hard to imagine in the pre–ice time box score era that anyone with this kind of game has played less. Thompson took only four shifts after Buffalo's ninth goal, and that covered the entire third period. He hasn't played so few minutes in nearly two seasons, on a night when another seven minutes could have made him some serious tavern trivia. Were I Buffalo coach Don Granato I'd have sent him out to see how many he could get because, after all, Sabres fans could use the gratuitous thrills.
True, the Jackets might take that as an affront, and given that the two teams play each other again in 20 days the chance that Thompson's 6-foot-7 frame presents an elongated and available target for petty revenge the risk would nearly match the reward. But a chance to be the first NHL player to score six goals in 47 years, and the first to score seven in more than 100 would be, well, downright fun. Dangerous, yes, but still fun. Maybe Granato could have sent a note to Columbus coach Brad Larsen saying simply, "Please don't hurt the lad. He's all we have." Or maybe that would only increase his peril. A team with the Blue Jackets' future has little to preserve by being gallant.
But the culture is the culture, and if Thompson isn't bothered enough to complain about his ice time, well, his loss is your loss. He is Buffalo's future in the right here and now, and for one night—well, for another night—he gave the fan base its money's worth. Kind of.