The effort and energy have been there all season for Kyle Okposo, who’s embraced his physical, grinding role as a power forward on the Islanders top shut-down unit. After an admittedly slow start statistically to the 2012-13 season, the Islanders right winger has turned things around with points in seven of his last 12 games.
Okposo says he hasn’t made any radical changes to his game to account for his production, but in recent weeks his hard-nosed style has worn on opponents, causing turnovers and generating opportunities for his line to strike.
“I’m playing with some confidence,” Okposo said. “Obviously, it was a frustrating start to the season for me. But you just have to keep going. We have a chance to make the playoffs and that’s what really makes me tick.”
The Islanders are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, and secondary scoring has been a big reason why. The line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes line was responsible for the lion’s share of the offense in the early stages of the season, but recently, the trio of Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey has paid dividends for the Islanders, producing a goal in each of the last four games. Three of the four goals gave the Islanders the lead, while the other was Okposo’s game-tying marker late in regulation to force overtime Thursday at Washington.
Okposo’s non-stop motor has been paramount to the line’s success in recent games.
“I think when he’s going, that line is better,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “He’s just working harder. With the lockout, it takes certain guys a little longer to get going. Maybe he was one of those guys. But he’s doing the right things - playing physical, shooting pucks. He’s making plays and showing a lot more confidence. He’s much more relaxed and when you do that and have the poise that he has, you’re going to have some success.”
In the second period Saturday at home against Tampa Bay, Okposo maneuvered around the Lightning zone before setting up Bailey in front of the Lightning net for a go-ahead goal in the second period. It was exactly the combination of battle, determination and patience that makes the seventh overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft so dangerous.
“It was a heck of a play by Kyle,” Bailey said. “He had the puck on a string out there. He beat a couple of guys and showed great patience. He found me in front with my stick on the ice. I didn’t even really see the puck come through, but I tried to get ready because I knew he was going to put it there.”
The goal, which came less than four minutes after Tampa Bay had tied the game, gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead and sparked the team to a 4-2 victory. Okposo believes the line’s biggest contributions come in the form of a solid two-way game, which in turn produces opportunities that show up on the score sheet.
“We’ve been responsible defensively and it’s been leading to more offensive chances too,” Okposo said. “We trust each other – we know where each other are going to be, and that if one of us makes a mistake, they’re going to get back or someone is going to cover for them.”
Nielsen added that when the line was struggling to find its groove in February, the focus remained on defense first. And their fortunes have reversed lately: the trio has combined for 20 points and a plus-18 rating over the last nine games, dating back to March 22.
“We’ve been good without the puck and played good defense. That’s what we talk about when we’re struggling and it’s the change we made. It’s not like we changed anything offensively. It’s our game without the puck that’s helped us.”
Nine games remain on the regular season schedule, with a two-point gap between seventh and 10th place in the Eastern Conference. If the eighth-place Islanders are going to continue their strong push into the postseason, the line’s defense-first mantra is going to be an essential piece of the puzzle.
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