TAMPA — If you want to know how much Lightning coach Guy Boucher likes and values Nate Thompson, consider the nickname teammates have given the center:
"They say that because I call him 'Textbook,' " Boucher said. "You ask something, he gets it right away. Basically, he represents everything we're trying to do defensively, even offensively. This guy is getting better every second. I strongly believe those are the kinds of guy that carry your culture."
Steven Stamkos carries the Lightning in scoring, leading the NHL with 21 goals heading into today's showdown with the Southeast Division-leading Capitals in Washington. But the star center said Tampa Bay (13-7-2), winner of five straight, wouldn't have had the success it has had this season if not for the play of Thompson.
Thompson, 26, usually a fixture on the fourth line with Adam Hall and Dana Tyrell, has moved up to the third line with captain Vinny Lecavalier injured. And Thompson has elevated his game, doing the little things, from winning faceoffs to causing turnovers with his forechecking. He scores dirty goals in front of the net while trying to shut down opposing team's top lines.
"He's a player that every winning team needs to have on their team in order to be successful," Stamkos said. "Whether he's playing second line, third line, fourth line, he can play every single role, penalty kill, power play. He's a utility player. … Some of the teams that have won in the past, they've always had someone like him on their team."
Stamkos said Boucher often points out Thompson's dependability in meetings — hence, the "Textbook" nickname — because the Anchorage, Alaska, native fits the first-year coach's innovative, aggressive system to a "T."
"When you're playing against the top two lines, you need to be textbook," said Thompson, who has three goals and six assists. "That's something I think I've got to expect out of myself at all times."
Thompson, claimed off waivers last season from the Islanders, may not be expected to rack up a lot of points. But he has come up with some gritty goals.
Thompson scored the winner in the third period of the Lightning's 8-7 win over the Flyers on Nov. 18. His hustling empty-net goal against the Islanders gave Tampa Bay a two-goal cushion in a 4-2 win on Nov. 17. A fitting Thompson goal came against the Leafs on Nov. 9: He leaped into the end boards to steal a pass, sent the puck to defenseman Mike Lundin for a shot from the blue line, then crashed the net to knock in a rebound.
"That's the goals we're going to score," Thompson said, referring to himself, Hall and Tyrell. "We're not going to score tic-tac-toe, behind-the-back-pass goals. It's not in our repertoire. It's a lot of fun when you can score those dirty goals in front of the net."
Stamkos said that as much as teammates will continue to rib Thompson with the "Nate Boucher" and "Textbook" nicknames, they appreciate him making the right plays and being "a big part of our team."
"I guess it's better being called (Nate Boucher) for a good reason," Thompson said, smiling.
That being said, he quipped, "I think I like Thompson a little better."