Hamstrung when they lost two of their three best players to injury before the season even started, the New York Islanders
can only wonder what might have happened with a healthy team.
On Tuesday, they got a bit of a glimpse when Kyle Okposo powered the Islanders to a 4-1 victory against the Atlanta Thrashers before 11,176 at Philips Arena. Okposo had a pair of goals and an assist - his first goals of the season in his sixth game back after suffering a serious shoulder injury during preseason.
Besides his obvious finishing touch, Islanders coach Jack Capuano talked about what having the 22-year-old Okposo, selected No. 7 in the 2006 Entry Draft, adds to the team.
"It adds a lot of emotion to our bench," said Capuano, whose team also lost Mark Streit, by far their best defenseman, to a preseason shoulder injury that may keep him out all season. "We got lines that are going and, again, not only in his play but he's one of our alternate captains. He leads by example and it's been a great help, obviously, with the injuries we sustained, to have Kyle back in our lineup for leadership."
Okposo, who totaled 52 points last season and 39 in 65 games in 2008-09, said missing the season's first 44 games with a shoulder injury was "awful."
"It wasn't fun," he said. "Watching the team play when I know I can't do anything to help. It's been really nice to play again."
Okposo earned what proved to be the game-winner with 3:21 left in the second period after shift during which the Islanders kept Atlanta hemmed in its own end. With a shot headed over his net, Thrashers defenseman Brent Sopel used his hand to bat the puck back in front of the crease. It landed right on Okposo's stick, and he slid a wrist shot past Ondrej Pavelec.
Twenty-three seconds later, Atlanta's Nic Bergfors earned a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass and Okposo assisted on PA Parenteau's wrist shot from just inside the left faceoff dot exactly one minute after Okposo's goal.
After ex-Islander Freddie Meyer scored the lone goal of the first period, the Islanders tied it with the first of their three second-period goals when rookie defenseman Travis Hamonic connected from the point thanks to a nice screen by Matt Moulson at 5:23. It was Hamonic's first career goal.
Okposo finished off the night by converting a 2-on-1 off a feed from rookie Michael Grabner that was the talk of the night - second to Okposo, that is. The Minnesota native said scoring those first two goals lifted a weight from his back.
"I felt better tonight," he said. "I've been feeling better every game."
Capuano said he was not surprised that Okposo had felt some pressure to score after totaling just one assist until Tuesday.
"Competitive guys do that," he said. "They put a lot of pressure on themselves and a lot of great athletes do that and Kyle's one of those guys who wants to be a leader on this team and wants to put pressure on himself, not only for himself but to help the team win. That's the kind of person he is."
Another youngster, 20-year-old rookie goalie Kevin Poulin made 25 saves, including a number of strong stops from close range. He lowered his goals-against average to 2.33 and improved his save percentage to .928 as the Isles, 29th in the overall standings, snapped a three-game losing streak.
"He was square to the puck, he controlled his rebounds and he battled for us," Capuano said of Poulin.
Meanwhile, Atlanta fell to 2-5-3 in its last 10 and seems to be a team in turmoil. In their last three games - all without All-Star defenseman Toby Enstrom (broken finger), their co-leader in points -- the Thrashers have scored one goal in each.
After the game, Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said several of the team's leaders approached him about keeping some of the team's players accountable.
After falling behind 3-1 after two periods, the Thrashers played with remarkable lethargy for a team only one point ahead of ninth-place Carolina in the Eastern Conference. They mustered only one shot on goal through the third period's first nine minutes.
"Our work ethic, our commitment was lacking," Ramsay said.
Ramsay said a coach can only point out the same errors on videotape so many times.
"The only hammer you've got is to sit them on the bench and let them watch somebody else play," he said, referring obliquely to some of the team's top skill players, though to no one by name.
The Thrashers took a 1-0 lead into first intermission on a play that had to be reviewed to make sure it counted. Meyer earned his first goal since March 16, 2010, when he played for the Islanders -- a span of 25 games for him.
But that was about as good as it would get for Atlanta. The only other positive development on Tuesday from a Thrashers' point of view was that Boston downed Carolina 3-2 in regulation to keep the Hurricanes, who have two games in hand on their Southeast Division rival, from pushing the Thrashers out of playoff position.