As Kyle Okposo saw his teammate absorb a big hit five minutes into the second period of Friday’s Game 2, his instincts led him to do something he hadn’t in over seven years.
The power forward engaged the perpetrator, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, then shed his helmet and gloves before delivering a power right.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Okposo said. “You don’t go planning those things, but it gave the team a little spark and that’s it.”
Okposo took a few shots in return before the fight ended, a small price to pay for a comeback-playoff win.
“He felt it was necessary to step up and sacrifice himself,” John Tavares said. “Kyle’s a big, strong guy. If you see him with his shirt off you realize you probably don’t want to mess around with him.”
Okposo’s been a standout player for the Islanders this series. He’s led on the ice by finishing checks and playing smart defensively – he has an even rating through two games – and firing up the bench with a timely scrap.
“When you see a guy who doesn’t (fight) very often it gets your troops fired up a little bit more,” Travis Hamonic said. “You could see the game change after that.”
Fourteen seconds after the scrap, the Islanders scored the first of three unanswered goals as they gritted out a 4-3 win. Fittingly, Okposo scored the game-winner in the third period, quieting an otherwise raucous Pittsburgh crowd.
“It felt real deserving that he got the winner last night,” Tavares said.
As one of the bigger Islanders players, Okposo bears the responsibility of using that size to win battles against a large Penguins squad, whose entire d-corps are over 200 pounds.
His defensive coverage has also improved through the last 25 games and it shows up on the stat-sheet and win column. Since a minus-3 outing on March 10 against the Penguins, Okposo has posted a plus or even rating in 19-of-24 games. He also scored 16 points (three goals, 13 assists) as the Islanders went 14-6-4 in that span, including the playoffs.
“I just try to finish my checks and play with an edge,” Okposo said. “Winning battles is a pretty big strength in my game.”
His play inspired other Islanders to contribute physically and agitate the Penguins.
“No one likes to get played rough, no one likes to get hit a lot,” Hamonic said. “No one likes the game between the game when it goes against you.”
Okposo didn’t plan to drop the gloves in Game 2, but the playoffs affect each player differently. He hadn’t fought in his NHL career, but he’s shown that he’s willing to fight for the team and the series win.
The Islanders and the Penguins answer the bell for round three Sunday at noon.