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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Kyle Okposo: ‘Fun to Have that Feeling Again’ with Florida Panthers

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Kyle Okposo, pictured here last month, played in his first playoff game since 2016 with the Florida Panthers on Thursday night. He will play in his second since then today in Tampa. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

TAMPA — Kyle Okposo reintroduced himself to playoff hockey by bringing the thunder with the Florida Panthers.

In his first playoff game since 2016, Okposo played a big role for Florida, getting an assist and providing the screen for the goal which gave the team a lead it would never relinquish in a 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 on Thursday night.

“It’s just fun to have that feeling again,” Okposo said. “The postseason is extremely special and you don’t know how good something is until it’s gone.

“When you are not in it for eight years, you’re just sitting there watching and yearning to be in it, yearning to get that feeling again. I woke up this morning pretty early and ready to go.”

Aaron Ekblad and Sasha Barkov both remember what it was like to play against Okposo the last time his team made the playoffs in 2016.

Okposo’s New York Islanders knocked the Panthers out of the first round in 6 games.

“He was one of those guys you do not want to play against,’’ Barkov said. “The Islanders had a really good team back then, and he was one of their main guys. Really excited for him. Can’t wait to see him on the ice. He has brought that leadership to our group. Just being here is a huge addition for us. We’re lucky to have him here.”

After years of being a key player and a leader on some unsuccessful Buffalo Sabres teams, Okposo finally got his chance when the Panthers traded for him at this year’s trade deadline.

At 36, Okposo wanted a chance to win and told the Sabres he would only want a trade to the Panthers.

“I’m here to win and I’m here to go on a ride with these fellas,” Okposo said.

“Since the day that I got here, they’ve been nothing but welcoming to me. It’s been fun to see how hard they work and how much they want it. It just brought those feelings right back into me and it’s a special feeling. And I’m here to do whatever I can to help the team win.”

Several of his former Buffalo teammates are in Florida now, and they were excited when they found out he was coming.

“At the deadline, when we got him, I was excited,” Brandon Montour said. “In my experience with him in Buffalo, the leadership he brings, the experience he’s had. Obviously it was a tough go he’s had in Buffalo with no experience in the playoffs, but I mean, regardless of if he’s in the lineup or not, it’s a no brainer that he’s going to have a great game.

“But as good as his off the ice, he brings that. Especially with the new team, it feels like he’s been on our team the whole ride here. Ever since we picked him up, it was a no brainer that we guys were excited to welcome him right away and he did a great job with that.”

That excitement continued when he got in the lineup and made an impact on the ice.

After he got his assist, everyone celebrated emphatically and gave him his props.

They knew what it took for him to reach this point and knew how much he deserved to be there.

“He’s always been an extremely hardworking guy,” Ekblad said. “He was the team captain there in Buffalo but didn’t see much success. He’s a true professional on and off the ice and a good person. I’m sure you guys have all come in contact with him so far and it’s fun to chat with him and learn things.”

Even now, Okposo’s situation isn’t easy.

He found himself on the outside looking in of the Game 1 lineup and got his chance to draw in after Ryan Lomberg and Sam Bennett came out.

But he is prepared to do whatever he needs to.

“I’ve worn a lot of different hats in my career,” Okposo said. “I’ve been on the first line, fifth line, healthy scratched, playing 25 minutes, I’ve kind of done a lot of different things and I’ve tried to do with as much respect as I can and I am going to do whatever the job calls for that day.

“If it calls for me not playing a game, if I can provide a little bit of insight into a game by watching it and telling somebody something that hopefully helps them on the ice. That’s what I’m going to do. If I’m going to go in and play, I’m going to play to the best of my abilities and be ready to play. So I’ve completely accepted my role and I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities.”

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (WC1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1)
PANTHERS LEAD BEST-OF-7 SERIES 3-0
GAME 4

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