John Tavares, the face of the New York Islanders, fittingly put the final touch on his team’s own role in sealing its first Stanley Cup playoff passport since 2007. His 3-3 equalizer with 61 seconds left in regulation Tuesday night assured a regulation point in the standings, which proved to be all the Isles needed when the Washington Capitals finished off the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets.
But it was equally fitting that the goal in question was set up, in part, by Kyle Okposo, a fifth-year pro who preceded Tavares as the franchise’s first-round draft choice by three years.
Of those 24 points, 15 have come within the last 19 games since March 16, in which time the Isles have gone 12-4-3. Since March 24, they have gone 11-1-3 to officially certify themselves as postseason contenders and Okposo has been barred from the scoresheet merely four times, totaling 12 points.
The closer the Islanders have come to stamping their playoff passport, the more consistent Okposo has become. His last set of consecutive pointless outings was at the end of March.
In terms of heating up in the homestretch of the regular season, this trend is nothing new for the seventh overall pick in the 2006 NHL entry draft. The only difference this year is that it is going to productive use for the team and stands a promising chance of carrying over into next week.
Okposo generally accelerates when there is something more than another two-point package in the standings on the line, even when mere pride is all there is to gain.
He cultivated 12 of his 45 total points within the Islanders’ final 13 games of the 2011-12 season. He finished 2009-10 with a career-best 52 points, but was not consistently producing for much of that campaign outside of a 5-5-10 scoring log in the last 12 games.
In 2008-09, his first season as a full-time NHLer, Okposo amassed six of his eight goals and 16 of his total 39 points within his last 14 out of 65 appearances.
So why hasn’t he sizzled like this from October to April? Or, in this season’s case, why not from January onward?
Why is it that his scouting report from The Hockey News still states as the first of his shortcomings, “Doesn’t yet know how good he can be?”
At least until mid-March of this year, the missing element just may have been the fact that he was in unfamiliar territory on an unspectacular team with no chance of winning any hardware.
Leading up to the day he turned professional in the middle of 2007-08, Okposo had grown accustomed to winning at the height of his amateur development. He had made an annual ritual of moving up a level, rapidly assimilating and appreciably contributing his skill set to a tradition-laden team.
He went to three straight youth national championship games with various Shattuck-St. Mary’s squads, winning an 18-and-under title his final year in 2004-05. From there, he corralled a USHL playoff crown with Des Moines in 2006 and then a WCHA pennant as a freshman with the Minnesota Gophers as well as a World Junior bronze medal in 2006-07.
That last season would also be Long Island’s last year of NHL playoff participation for a while. In turn, when Okposo slotted into the equation after a brief stint with AHL Bridgeport in 2008, he moved to his third new environment in as many years.
The trouble was this third transition was hardly a charm as it lacked any readily available opportunity to compete in any kind of tournament.
Hard to believe that such a drawback could not have had any bearing on a player of Okposo’s background and build (6’0, 212 pounds). His various blessings had been suddenly stalled and he was stuck in a vibe where competition for a title was an afterthought.
But the defining stage of the Islanders’ 2013 season has marked a U-turn back in the right direction.
Okposo has not attained much in his personal goal column with his shot of late, but he has had a hand in seven of the Islanders’ last 19 goals. That includes the 1-0 icebreaker with 21 seconds left in the first period of an eventual 2-1 win in Boston on April 11, two go-ahead strikes in Winnipeg this past Saturday and two of three equalizers to cement that playoff-clinching point Tuesday night.
With only eight points separating second place from ninth in the Eastern Conference, the first-round matchups are far from determined, therefore the Islanders’ odds of making any ripples remain difficult to gauge.
But assuming they do not retract beyond this season, there is instant hope that the future will feature the competitive, formidable power-forward Okposo that they eagerly drafted seven years ago.
The delayed symbiotic cycle is now running.
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