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Kyle Okposo Knocked the Panthers Out Once. Now, He Wants to Win with Florida

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Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo battle for the puck during the second period of Game 3 of the 2016 NHL playoffs. Okposo’s Islanders won that series in 6; now, he is trying to help the Panthers win with new teammate Dmitry Kulikov. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

For the first time in eight years, Kyle Okposo will be back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

His New York Islanders knocked out the Florida Panthers in the first round back in 2016.

After losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, Okposo signed with the Buffalo Sabres and ended up spending the past eight seasons there.

On a Buffalo team rife with struggles, Okposo tried to get the Sabres on the right path.

Now, after a trade to the Florida Panthers, Okposo has a chance to show the world what he can do.

“It’s definitely nice,” Okposo told Florida Hockey Now. “It just means all of the work we put in, and all of the work these guys put in before I got here, paid off. It’s a very difficult thing to make the playoffs in this league and to do it on a consistent basis makes it that much more special for us.”

Okposo, who spent the past two seasons as captain of the Sabres, credited the work Florida put in to get to this point.

He, certainly, earned the right to be here with a playoff team.

The leadership he provided the Sabres helped cultivate a young core to get itself to a point where it can be impactful in playoff situations down the road.

At 34, Okposo now has the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup once again.

“Nothing else matters other than that shift, that moment, that game. Nothing else matters at all,” Okposo said. 

“I’ve always said it: It’s the most pure form of hockey on the planet. That’s the purest form of the best sport in the world, and that’s all you want to do. I’ve had that itch for a really long time to get back in there. I’m not 27 years old anymore, but I know what kind of impact I can make, and I’m really looking forward to getting that feeling again.”

Before signing with Buffalo in 2016, Okposo scored seven goals and 15 points in 24 playoff games for the New York Islanders.

“His leadership qualities are extreme,” former New York teammate Cal Clutterbuck said. “It’s pretty well documented that he had a huge hand in what’s going on in Buffalo and the resurgence of that program. He is just a smart hockey player, and he can play in many different situations. He’s been a top-six guy; he’s played a bottom-six role. He’s got a big body, and he plays the game hard. Obviously, he is hungry. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago, and he is excited for the opportunity and is capable of playing many different roles.”

“He’s a bull,” Matt Martin added. “He plays a power-forward style. He hasn’t lost his skill, but he is a big body and somebody who is willing to do whatever it takes to win. That was a big moment in the game. He’s stepped up to fight plenty of times throughout his career for a guy that really shouldn’t have to, or need to. He’s willing to do those things, and he was just a leader on this team. Good defensively, offensively, played with an edge and always looking to step up to motivate us.”

He had iconic moments in those runs that stuck with the club for years.

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One of the first and most significant was when 24-year-old Kyle Okposo, and the even younger Islanders, found themselves in a hole against the juggernaut Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs.

New York was down 3-1 when Matt Moulson was down on the ice after taking a high stick from Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen.

At that moment, Okposo knew he needed to step up to the plate and get things going for his team.

“I think we had 16 guys who were making their playoff debut in Pittsburgh,” Okposo said. “Loud building, obviously Sidney Crosby on the other side of the ice, Jarome IginlaEvgeni MalkinKris Letang, just all of these Hall of Famers and we just get waxed. In Game 2, it’s not going our way again and I just tried to do something to get a spark going.”

Right then and there, Okposo dropped the gloves with Niskanen and left him with blood pouring down his face.

That was all the Islanders needed to get going.

“He’s my best friend, so in that moment, we always try to have each other’s backs on the entire team, especially when you’re really close with someone,” Moulson told FHN. “But in that moment, he saw an opportunity to right a wrong and he is an intense individual who cares a lot about winning and cares a lot about his teammates. He is a big, strong guy, so he took it upon himself to get some momentum there.

“We hated Pittsburgh… I think that moment with Kyle was like, ‘we’re not going to be pushed around, we’re not going to take any crap, we’re here to try and win a series’.”

New York tied the game midway through the second period and the puck ended up on Okposo’s stick in the game’s biggest moment.

Okposo fired a shot that deflected off the glass, off goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and into the net with 7:37 to go in the third to give the Islanders the lead in what ended up being a 4-3 win.

[Frans Nielsen] tried to pass it to me, I somehow nicked it over to Kyle and he shot it off the boards and off of Fleury,” Moulson said. “I remember that one.”

Kyle Okposo Settles in with the Florida Panthers

Okposo looked over to Moulson and, according to the broadcast’s lip-reading skills, said “I sniped that one.”

“His wife is the funnier one,” Moulson said. “I don’t know if he was funny enough to come up with that one.”

That game gave the Islanders reason to believe going back to the Nassau Coliseum tied 1-1, but in a series where two or fewer goals decided all but two games, they fell in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6.

“We lost the series in 6, but I thought from the third period of Game 2, we outplayed them the whole series,” Okposo said. “Just talking to those guys about it, they felt that they were, they thought it was going seven for sure. We were trying to get a win at home but we just weren’t able to close it, but it was a great experience. I think we were a loose team, we weren’t really tight in our details. But we had that fire and that passion.”

He had a similar impact when the Islanders found their way back to the playoffs two years later in 2015.

With the series headed back to Long Island tied 1-1, the game was deadlocked at 0-0 throughout the first period.

Okposo broke the silence, deflecting a Lubomir Visnovsky shot past Brayden Holtby to give New York a 1-0 lead after hounding the front of the net all shift.

John Tavares won the game for New York 25 seconds into overtime, and suddenly, the Islanders had a series lead.

“That was a fun moment for us as a franchise,” Clutterbuck said. “I think that was when we really got to the point where we felt like we were a good team. We felt like we belonged in the playoffs, and we felt like we were capable of beating anybody. Unfortunately, we didn’t make the run we wanted to, but that’s when the feeling that the Islanders were a different team than we have been in the past and those were formative years for this franchise.”

New York didn’t win that series, either.

Their drought of 23 years without a playoff series win extended to 2016 after they fell to the Capitals in seven games.

But Okposo was again there when the Islanders needed him the most.

In the second overtime of Game 6 of their playoff series against the Panthers, Okposo drove the puck up the boards and dumped the puck off to Tavares in the slot.

Tavares got a shot off, picked up the rebound, and beat Roberto Luongo with a wrap-around.

Okposo’s contribution to that play was a lasting memory of his Islanders tenure, which ended five games after they got bounced by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2.

”He uses his body, he’s very strong and he is a very cerebral player,” Anders Lee said. “That play is a great example of that. His ability to hold onto the puck, create time and space for his linemates and when it’s time to get them the puck, and it is a great example of the plays he has made throughout his career. It’s extremely impressive what he’s been able to do.”

All of those years later, Okposo hopes to bring the same energy to a Panthers fanbase he helped sour eight years ago.

“That was a fun series,” he said. “It was hard-fought, they were a really good team, a younger team. They were just starting their climb and we were a 100-point team for a couple years in a row there. We thought we had a chance and it was a hard-fought series. … I never thought I’d be down here playing in a playoff series as the home team, but that’s the way life goes and I really look forward to it.

“It’s an atmosphere they’ve created by how they’ve played and they’ve really grown up the fanbase and, just seeing fans enter the building now, everyone’s excited and you can see they have a rabid following. We want to make a deep run here and get over that hump. We’re going to talk a lot more about that once the playoffs do start, but it’s been a lot of fun to watch this organization grow.”

And everyone who has been around Okposo all of these years knows that he is capable of doing just that.

”I think Okie has the ability to articulate the situation or what’s going on very well,” Lee said.

“He was a leader not only with his words but with his play and how he played for the team. He played the game the right way and did everything he could to make sure the team had success. I think that’s true to his character of putting the team before anything else and I don’t think that’s any different than what he’s continued to bring in Florida.”

ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS @ TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

  • When: Monday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports SUN/ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • This Season (Tied 1-1) — At Florida: Panthers 3, Leafs 1 (Oct. 19); April 16. At Toronto: Leafs 2, Panthers 1 (Nov. 28); Monday.
  • Last Season: Toronto won Regular Season Series 3-1; Florida won Eastern Conference Semifinals 4-1
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 49-37-7, 7 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday at Montreal, 7 p.m.
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