UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo would be the first to tell you he struggled through much of last season. The Islanders' first-round pick (No. 7) at the 2006 NHL Draft had four goals in 48 regular-season games, a huge dip from the 24 goals he scored in 79 games in 2011-12.
Things changed during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the Islanders trailing 3-1 in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the Pittsburgh Penguins, forward Matt Moulson was hit hard by Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone. Okposo, knowing his team needed a lift, challenged Niskanen to a fight.
Okposo landed a couple of early right hands to Niskanen's face, leaving a cut under his left eye. Fourteen seconds after play resumed, Colin McDonald scored to make it a one-goal game. Just over five minutes later, Matt Martin got the Islanders even. Okposo scored the game-winner midway through the third period, then scored two more goals in the series before the Islanders were eliminated in six games.
"It was kind of the moment and I thought we could use a little spark," Okposo recalled to NHL.com at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday. "It just kind of happened. I didn't even really see the hit, I just saw he kind of got hurt a little bit, so I wanted to jump-start the boys."
Islanders center Frans Nielsen said, "Of course when one of your leaders steps up like that, you know something's not right. You've got to wake up. [Assistant coach Doug Weight] started yelling at the bench. It's not every day you see that either. There's different things that went on there when we were down 3-1. It got the team together and we started playing."
The Islanders seemed energized by the fight and gave the Penguins everything they could handle. But it may have been what Okposo needed to lift his game to where he and the Islanders knew it should have been all along.
"Yeah, maybe … I don't know," Okposo said. "It was good for the team and for the guys, it lit a spark. Personally, maybe it helped me get into the series a little bit. I don't know if I could point to that specifically that's why I was producing offensively."
Okposo is off a solid start for the Islanders this season. In nine games, he had three goals, seven assists and a plus-1 rating. But he said he's capable of more.
"I think I've been OK," Okposo said. "I've been getting better. I thought last game I could have been better defensively for sure. We had a couple of lapses and I thought I could have done a better job of getting into the game. Overall, I've been decently happy with it. I think we've had some good games and some not-great games.
"I just want to keep getting better. I think I've been doing some things well offensively. I just need to keep winning battles and I think the rest will take care of itself."
As long as Okposo continues to skate on New York's top line alongside captain John Tavares, the offensive chances will continue to be there. With Tavares getting the majority of the attention from the opposition, Okposo will get opportunities as long as he works to find open ice.
"You know you're going to get chances and offensive-zone time playing with him," Okposo said of Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist last season. "But that being said, they're keying on him so much, you have to get open and try and create space yourself."
Tavares said, "We've had some good moments and we've had times where we can be a little better, obviously. I think that just goes with the way things have gone for our team to start the season. There have been some good things on the power play, but we could still be better 5-on-5. I think we know there's room to get better and grow and be more productive and more efficient as well."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano has spent time shuffling lines this season, but he's kept Okposo with Tavares for much of it. He's liked what he's seen from his 25-year-old right wing.
"I think he's played harder," Capuano said. "I think he can play smarter at times, but I can't fault his work ethic and his ability to get in on the forecheck, drive his legs and be the power forward that he is. I'm pleased with the way he's playing. If he can continue to do that, he's going to help our hockey team."
The Islanders won three of their first nine games (3-3-3) and have experienced difficulty protecting leads on home ice. Friday they'll be back in a familiar place, when they'll face the Penguins at Consol Energy Center.
Who knows … perhaps Okposo will light another spark for his team?
"It's definitely going to be interesting going in there and not being a playoff game," Okposo said. "But it's another two points we've got to get."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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