At 32, and a veteran of nine full NHL seasons, Anaheim Ducks center Nate Thompson of Anchorage understands the opportunity dangling deliciously before him – a shot at hockey heaven — should be cherished.
The Ducks open the Western Conference Finals – just one round away from competing for the Stanley Cup – on Friday when they entertain the Nashville Predators.
Thompson's been here before, and he knows the pain of losing. Thompson and the Ducks lost Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in 2015 to the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. In 2011, when Thompson cashed his checks from Tampa Bay, the Lightning lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual Cup champion Boston Bruins.
And after all Thompson has endured the last couple seasons – offseason shoulder surgery in 2015 and offseason Achilles surgery in 2016 – age and experience have taught him to covet the moment.
"This time around, at this point in my career, at this age, and this being the last year of my contract, I think it's a lot more gratifying,'' Thompson said by cellphone Thursday. "I also look at it as my third time to this point of the season, and I know how hard it is to get here.
"I'm not satisfied.''
No NHLer is until he has lifted the Cup.
The Ducks advanced to the conference finals with Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 to cap a rollercoaster series in which Anaheim lost the first two games at home. Edmonton forced Game 7 in unusual fashion – playoff blowouts like its 7-1 torch-job in Game 6 are rare. Still, that wasn't as rare as Anaheim's miraculous Game 5 win – trailing 3-0 with less than four minutes left, the Ducks scored three extra-attacker goals to force extra time and won 4-3 in double overtime.
"I've never been part of something like that as a player, even in minor hockey,'' Thompson said. "It was something that was special, and special to be part of. When we got that third goal, it was pure pandemonium on the bench.''
Thompson, who played for the Alaska Aces during the NHL lockout in the 2012-13 season, is in the final season of a four-year, $6.4-million contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Thompson owns 2-2—4 scoring totals and a plus-5 rating in 11 playoff games this spring, and he's won 53.7 percent of his faceoffs. As a fourth-line pivot and penalty-killer, his ice time these playoffs has ranged from a high of 13 minutes, 50 seconds, in Game 1 against Edmonton to a low of 6:39 in Wednesday's clincher.
Occasionally faced with long interludes between shifts, Thompson said, he focuses on, well, staying focused.
"It changes – there are nights when you play more, and nights you don't play as much,'' he said. "It's all about staying ready, staying engaged, staying focused in the moment.
"I'll be talking to guys on the ice – telling them they have time, or to watch out for a hit. I'll be talking to guys on the bench. One of my linemates, Chris Wagner, is pretty young (25), so I'll keep telling him, 'Stay ready.'
"No matter how many minutes you play, you need to contribute and you need to just control what you can control.''
Thompson said he would have preferred more time off between series – most players are banged up after two playoff rounds, and he's in that camp. Still, he said, staying positive is critical in the postseason.
"It's a quick turnaround – that's up to the NHL and the TV networks,'' Thompson said. "At the same time, we're still in game-mode and we can get going.''