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Isles give fans at NHL Store optimism for future

by Brian Hunter
NEW YORK -- During the question-and-answer session between several New York Islanders and fans Monday afternoon at the NHL Powered By Reebok Store, a question was posed to Kyle Okposo as to what special ingredient the team possesses that has been making it successful. The fan admitted he had only moved to the area and started following the team in January.

"You picked a good time to start watching us," Okposo said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "Nothing happened before then."

While that's not exactly true, the way the Islanders have been playing since mid-December has allowed their fan base to at least put a poor start to the 2010-11 season behind them, if not forget about it entirely.

And when Okposo, linemates Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner and defenseman Andrew MacDonald appeared at the store as part of a panel hosted by commentator Billy Jaffe, they were greeted by a loud and enthusiastic throng that came out clad in Islanders apparel and eager to support their team.

"We know what we have, we have a special thing here," Okposo told them. "We play for each other and we go to war for each other every night on the ice."

Okposo missed the first half of the season recovering from a shoulder injury suffered during training camp and the Islanders lost 20 out of 21 games at one point, costing coach Scott Gordon his job. But the team eventually pulled it together under interim coach Jack Capuano and is tied with the Washington Capitals for the most points in the NHL (50) since Dec. 16.

If the Islanders appear to be a looser team, it starts from behind the bench. MacDonald revealed under questioning by Jaffe that the biggest cut-up in the dressing room isn't one of the players -- it's the coach, who has been known to put in fake teeth at the end of a morning skate or play video clips comparing players with various celebrities.

"He's great at keeping us loose," MacDonald said. "It goes a long way."

There was no shortage of good-natured ribbing between the players Monday, from Nielsen joking that speed demon Grabner was really the slowest skater on their line to Grabner talking about a post he made on Twitter that he was heading to the NHL Store with "Harry Okposo Potter," a reference to his teammate's supposed obsession with the movies based on J.K. Rowling's boy wizard.

Entering Monday's action, the Islanders were still mathematically alive for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, sitting 11 points out with 12 games remaining. While it's a long-shot for them to be playing beyond mid-April this season, Okposo responded to one fan's question about what the team's goals are moving forward with an optimistic view of the future.

"We're just taking it day by day, game by game," he said. "We're on a good stretch and we want to finish as strong as we can. The playoffs are still within reach and we just want to go out there and get two points every game. There are no moral victories this time of year.

"It's definitely a special thing we have here, though, and it bodes well for next year."

The Islanders' foursome was a hit with the crowd.

"I thought they were good. They spoke to what the fans wanted. They understood our questions and they answered them the right way," said 25-year-old Rob Viala from Plainview, N.Y. "They've had their ups and downs this season. Unfortunately the downs came before the ups, but the ups are here now so we're going to let it roll."

Nineteen-year-old Melissa Alves from Mineola, N.Y., came with two of her friends. Describing herself as an Islanders fan since birth, she left impressed by the players' receptiveness to the fans and the camaraderie she saw up on the podium.

"They were down-to-earth. They listened to us and you could tell they wanted to do this and that it wasn't just a mandatory thing," Alves said. "I knew they were close but seeing them interact together that way outside of the [Nassau] Coliseum was reassuring."
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