UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- It's not surprising that the New York Islanders' best player thus far in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins is one of their first-round picks in a past NHL Draft. The surprise is which one.
While John Tavares, the first player chosen in 2009, is the focal point of the Islanders, 2006 first-rounder Kyle Okposo has been playing the best hockey of his career and given New York the kind of two-way production the team has been looking for since making him the seventh player chosen seven years ago.
Right Wing - NYI
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 3
SOG: 9 | +/-: 1
Okposo and linemates Frans Nielsen
and Josh Bailey
were arguably the Islanders' best forward unit in April, when New York used a season-closing 8-1-4 run to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007. Okposo has carried his improved play into the postseason, scoring the winning goal in the Islanders' 4-3 victory in Game 2 and scoring the first shorthanded goal of his career to spark a third-period rally in Game 3 before the Penguins won 5-4 in overtime.
"I'm playing with a bit more of an edge," Okposo said after Monday's practice when asked what was different in his game. "You try to go out there and make an impact on the game, and I've been doing a better job of that. I didn't start the regular season [the way] I wanted to. I'm just trying to have a better postseason."
The Islanders have been waiting for Okposo to be a difference maker since they brought him to the NHL late in the 2007-08 season. He's shown flashes of the talent that attracted the Islanders, but has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his career.
After finishing the 2011-12 season on a hot streak that led to a career-high 24 goals, the Islanders moved him to right wing on Tavares' line to start this season. But the chemistry wasn't there, and he was moved back onto a line with Nielsen and Bailey. The trio took a while to click, but by late March they had provided the Islanders with a viable second scoring line -- preventing opponents from devoting all their energy to shutting down Tavares' line.
"We had confidence playing together from the past, and I think it carried over into this season," said Bailey, a first-round pick in 2008 who's had his own ups and downs. "We liked our game through the last portion of the season especially."
Bailey, who was moved to Tavares' line in Game 2, said Okposo has brought his game to a new level.
"He's been a horse for us all season," Bailey said. "But I think now you're really seeing the determination that he has and that he plays with. Lots of us have fed off that."
Through the first three games of this series, Okposo has done two things he'd never done before in his five-plus NHL seasons. He helped turn the momentum in Game 2 by battling Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen in his first NHL fight, then scored the first shorthanded goal of his career in Game 3.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano said the lockout and the quick start to the season may have hurt Okposo's game.
"Some players with the lockout [had a] late start," Capuano said. "Midway through the season, he started to play like the Kyle Okposo we need him to play like.
"He's a great leader for us. He stepped up in Game 2 and did what he had to do. When a player is playing with confidence, he's moving his feet -- it lifts his whole game."
Perhaps the most notable trait Okposo has shown in recent weeks is his relentlessness. He's made life miserable for puck-carriers and has taken his compete level to a new high.
"I don't know if I would say more aggressive," he said when asked about changes in his play. "It's just finishing your hits and [being] harder on the puck. I think one of my best attributes is winning battles, and I've tried to elevate my battle level and try not to be denied."