By Adam Brady
If there is one man who epitomizes the grit-your-teeth, gut-it-out grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs – not to mention the grueling climb from the muck pulled off by these Anaheim Ducks – it’s the guy from Anchorage, Alaska with the missing front tooth.
Ducks forward Nate Thompson has been part of Anaheim’s disappointing opening two losses at home in this postseason, not to mention the tenacious recovery to capture Games 3 and 4 in Nashville. But that seesaw of emotions is nothing compared to what Thompson endured last year.
After a collision into the boards in the regular season finale at Arizona, Thompson suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of Anaheim’s sweep of Winnipeg in the First Round. He returned to action for ensuing series against Calgary and Chicago, but was forced to wear a brace under his jersey to protect the shoulder.
“It was tough,” says the 31-year-old veteran of 10 NHL seasons. “The way I had to play, wearing a shoulder brace the whole time, was pretty restricting. It was an adjustment for me. But I think once I got going last year in the playoffs, the adrenaline started going, you get in the game and you kind of forget about it. The biggest part for me were the days after the games, the soreness and trying to get warmed up again for the next game was a challenge.”
He says that was nothing compared to the recovery he slogged through after Anaheim’s season ended with a Game 7 defeat to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final. Thompson underwent the first surgery of his life in June, having two labral tears repaired in his left shoulder, causing him to spend the majority of the summer and the first part of this season rehabbing.
|“You have to fight for your ice, you have to fight for every inch out there, and that’s kind of how I like to play. I have to work hard out there, I have to be physical, I have to play with a lot of energy and that’s what the playoffs are all about.” |
“Knowing I wasn’t going to be able to start the season was the hardest part,” says Thompson, who wasn’t able to return until the first week of December. “The physical part wasn’t the hardest part, it’s the mental part of it, knowing that you’ve got a long ways to go and you have to do the same things every day to get back. It’s been a long road, but now I’m here.”
Thompson made his first appearance of the season on December 2 and his triumphant return was sullied just 10 days later he was suspended three games for an illegal hit on Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk. It took Thompson 42 games before he scored his first goal, but that was little concern for the Ducks coaching staff, who had told him from the start not to give his stats a second thought.
“They told that to me at the beginning of the season, before I came back and while I was rehabbing,” Thompson says. “It was just, ‘Make sure you’re healthy and ready to go for April.’”
Besides, Thompson isn’t relied on for his scoring prowess, but rather a hard-checking, workmanlike approach that fits seamlessly with this defensive-minded Ducks team, especially this time of year.
“Every year you see it in the playoffs – there’s not a lot of room out there. You have to fight for your ice, you have to fight for every inch out there, and that’s kind of how I like to play,” Thompson says. “I have to work hard out there, I have to be physical, I have to play with a lot of energy and that’s what the playoffs are all about.”
So it was a windfall when Thompson scored Anaheim’s second goal in Thursday night’s Game 4, which stood up as the game-winner in a crucial 4-1 Ducks victory over the Predators in Nashville. Thompson is certainly not a goal-scorer (though he did have one in Game 2 as well), but it was undoubtedly a goal-scorer’s goal, as he patiently waited out goalie Pekka Rinne before slipping the puck inside the near post.
"When I got the puck, I knew it was gonna be hard for me to get a shot off right away,” he said, “so I just decided to hold onto it for a second. I saw an opening and I put it in.”
In addition to giving his team a late second period lead, the goal was an unintended thank-you to Nate’s sister Tiffany and his three-year-old nephew. The two of them drove nine hours from their home in Thibodaux, Louisiana to Bridgestone Arena and got there in time for warmups.
“The day we were flying out there, she texted me and said she was going to make the drive to come to Nashville,” Thompson says. “It was pretty special. They were good luck, so I was really hoping they were gonna come to California too, but it didn’t work out. Maybe they’ll be there for Game 6, we’ll see.”
|"It’s Ducks hockey. We always find a way to put ourselves in a spot with lots of adversity,” Thompson says with a chuckle. “It’s okay, as long as you get a job done. If we do it the hard way, so be it.” |
Thompson is careful not to think too much about that game, however, and whether he admits to being superstitious or not, he does tend to say things like, "It's nice to feel healthy this year ... knock on wood."
Right now his focus is on Saturday afternoon and Game 5 and maintaining the type of play that has gotten them back in this series.
“I think everyone in here knows we still have a lot of work to do,” Thompson says. “We can’t let our foot off the gas pedal because they’re gonna come in and have a strong game against us. We need to make sure we’re ready and we don’t let up.”
If the Ducks are able to ultimately get past Nashville after falling into a 2-0 hole, it will be prototypical of an Anaheim team that made a valiant rebirth after a baffling start to the season. And if anyone knows about recovering from hardship, it’s Thompson.
“It’s kind of been a joke around here: It’s Ducks hockey. We always find a way to put ourselves in a spot with lots of adversity,” Thompson says with a chuckle. “It’s okay, as long as you get a job done. If we do it the hard way, so be it.”