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Kids like Okposo have Isles in playoff hunt

by Chuck Gormley
Kyle Okposo knows what some folks around the NHL are saying about his New York Islanders -- that they're too young, too inexperienced and too short on talent to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff race much long.

"What we did in the first half, I don't think anybody expected us to do outside of the group we have in the locker room," Okposo told "We play hard for each other every night and we know if we keep going the way we can, anything can happen. We want to stay in the hunt and be playing in April."

Okposo understands the reason for the skepticism. The Islanders haven't been in the playoffs since sneaking in on the last day of the 2006-07 season, back when Okposo was a freshman at the University of Minnesota.

Since then, the Isles' growing pains have been significant. They finished 13th in the conference two years ago with 35 wins and dead last in the NHL last season with just 26 wins.

But through 52 games this season, 47 of them without goaltender Rick DiPietro, the Islanders were 23-21-8 and right in the hunt for a playoff berth. A 7-2-1 stretch that included wins over Detroit, Colorado, Phoenix and New Jersey has not only raised eyebrows across the NHL, it has done wonders for the mindset inside the New York dressing room.

"We have a lot of confidence right now," Okposo said. "Confidence in every position, from our goaltenders on out, and that's really starting to show in our play. Guys are starting to make plays and hang onto the puck a little more. Stuff that maybe we weren't doing at the beginning of the season. We were a little tentative to try different stuff, but now we're making good plays, but the right plays also."

The Islanders have placed much of their fate in Okposo, Josh Bailey and John Tavares, three consecutive first-round draft picks that have formed one dynamic line. Looking for more scoring from his top line, second-year coach Scott Gordon decided to move Okposo, who was taken seventh in 2006, onto a line with Bailey (ninth in 2007) and Tavares (first in 2009).

In their first nine games together, Okposo, 21, Bailey, 20, and Tavares, 19, combined for 7 goals and 16 assists. Okposo and Bailey broke into the NHL together last season and both are about to exceed their offensive totals from a year ago.

Bailey followed a 96-point season with the Windsor Spitfires by netting just 7 goals and 18 assists in his first season with the Islanders, finishing a minus-14. Through 51 games this season, Bailey had 12 goals and 13 assists and was a plus-10.

"I think he's progressed a lot," Okposo said of Bailey, who had 4 goals and 8 assists in a recent nine-game stretch. "The confidence factor is even a bigger issue with him. He's just exuding confidence right now and it shows in his play. He's come a long way. He's always working hard now and making the right play. He's come a long way to when he first came into the league."

Okposo can say the same about Tavares, who entered this season with the weight of Long Island on his shoulders as the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. Picked by many as the runaway favorite for rookie of the year, Tavares had 17 goals and 15 assists through his first 52 games.

Okposo, who has been Tavares' road roommate, has acted as the 18-year-old's confidante this season, encouraging him to take small bites of his first NHL experience.

"We have a lot of time to talk on the road," Okposo said. "The one thing about him is that he's so competitive and he's pretty hard on himself, too. He always wants to be the best player every night and that's a lot to put on yourself.

"Sometimes I need to tell him he's a great player with a great future and if one shift doesn't go his way he's got to let it go. He's come a long way, too, from the beginning of the year. He's starting to play a lot more consistently for us."

So has Okposo, who at 21 is still learning how to use his powerful 6-foot-1, 200-pound body effectively against some of the top defensive pairs in the NHL.

"Kyle's one of the strongest kids I've ever seen," said teammate Matt Moulson, who might be the biggest surprise on the Island with 19 goals.

Moulson likes to tell the story about how Okposo, whose name translates to "Thunder Storm" in Arabic, nearly ran him over after muscling through three opponents without losing the puck.

"I think I'm seeing the play a lot better," Okposo said. "I like to create time and space for my linemates, maybe get a guy off me and give them the puck with a little more time, so they have time to make a play. That's one thing that comes with experience, just knowing what you can do against certain defensemen in the league and what you can't."

Okposo says he's played a thunderous game since he first laced on skates as a boy growing up in St. Paul, Minn. Although his father, Kome, immigrated from Nigeria when he was 16 and never played hockey, Okposo said it didn't take long for him to trade basketball sneakers for a pair of skates.

"My Mom (Michele) and Dad were huge with developing me into a hockey player," he said. "They'd drive me to 6 a.m. practices. My Dad tried to never miss a game. He never played hockey before, but he watched the NHL so much to learn and to try to teach me stuff. His knowledge of the game is really impressive for somebody who didn't have a background in hockey.

Okposo said his parents wanted him to play other sports and he did, but it didn't take long for him to choose hockey.

"Hockey was always my first love," he said. "I just loved skating outdoors and being outside with my biddies and it took off from there."

A scholarship to the University of Minnesota was followed by a phone call from the Islanders and within two years, Okposo went from being a college star to a top-line power forward in the NHL and a 2009 invitee to the U.S. Olympic tryout camp. Okposo was not selected to this year's team, but is hoping his performance with the Islanders over the next three seasons leads to an invitation in 2014. For now, his sights are set on keeping the Islanders in one of the most hotly contested playoff races in years.

"I think a lot of people are probably asking if we're for real," he said. "Just look at how we've been playing recently and what we've been doing to pretty good teams. I'm sure people across the "League still have their doubts. But we beat Colorado and Phoenix and came home and beat Jersey and Buffalo. Those are pretty good teams. We're playing probably as well as anybody in the League right now."

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