As a team, the New York Islanders have not been able to build off what they accomplished last season, when they qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007.
But right wing Kyle Okposo continues to make strides, so much so that the Minnesota native is meriting serious consideration to be named later this week to the United States roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Skating on the top line alongside Thomas Vanek and John Tavares, the 25-year-old ranks second on the Islanders with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 39 games. He had 24 points (four goals) in 48 games last season.
Okposo's 34 points have him in the top five among American skaters this season.
"It's in the back of your mind, obviously," Okposo said of making the Olympic team, which will be named immediately following the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Wednesday. "World Junior tournament is going on right now, so I've been following that a little bit. You think about the international competition a little bit, but I'm here with the Islanders, and I'm still going to keep playing well."
Okposo seemed to really find his game during the opening round of the 2013 postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 2, he dropped the gloves with Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen and scored the game-winning goal in a 4-3 victory that evened the series at one game apiece. The Islanders went on to lose the series in six games, but Okposo finished with three goals and an assist.
The 6-foot, 216-pound wing has virtually picked up where he left off, a far cry from the past couple of seasons. Early in the 2011-12 season, Okposo's production fell off to the point where he was a healthy scratch for three straight games.
"I think it's more of how Kyle's playing himself," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I think that he went through some tough stretches. We sat him there a little bit, but he's playing physical. He's grinding it out. He's playing good down low. He's puck-protecting. He's shooting pucks. But to me, it's about confidence. He's got that right now. He's playing poised, he's playing relaxed, and when you do that, you play confident and you play your best hockey. I think that's the biggest difference now, that he's utilizing his size and he's skating real well."
Capuano said he's particularly proud of the way Okposo has also established himself as a leader, another reason why he feels Okposo, an alternate captain for the Islanders, should represent the United States in Sochi.
"His numbers are real good," Capuano said. "But more importantly, this is a guy that's always been a leader wherever he's been. He's a high-character guy, and those are important ingredients when you're putting a team together like the Olympic team. For me, his play speaks for itself. But I just like the fact with his leadership and how he steps up in certain situations, and he's been real good with our young guys as well."
Okposo admitted he's somewhat pleased with his performance this season, but he's not all smiles since his team finds itself in last place in the Metropolitan Division and five points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
New York (11-21-7) went 4-10-1 in November and continues to experience difficulty stringing victories together as it attempts to get back into the playoff hunt.
"As a team, we've been pretty up and down," Okposo said. "I think we went through a tough spell there and we're starting to figure it out, starting to play better and regain our identity. Me personally, I feel like I've played OK. I've been putting up some decent numbers, but I want to continue to get better and continue to grow."
Capuano believes as long as Okposo continues to play with confidence, his game will improve. Considering where Okposo's game is right now, the hope is that his name will be added to the U.S. roster Wednesday.
"It's about his will right now, and he's always had the will," Capuano said. "But right now, I think it's about the poise and the confidence. That line's been good for us, but he's a reason why that line has been good, because of his work ethic and his determination to make that line better. Right now, he's skating well and he's got a lot of time in the offensive zone and he's puck protecting and more importantly, he's shooting pucks."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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