January 17, 2015

Okposo Leads Isles Comeback in 6-3 win over Pens

If you watched the beginning of the Islanders vs. Penguins game on Friday night and quickly got annoyed and turned the game off, then you missed quite a game. The Islanders fought back, lead by Kyle Okposo and his four(!) goals in a 6-3 victory that gave them 30 wins for the year and put them in the Eastern Conference lead once again.

Let that sink in for a moment - the Islanders have 30 wins, and have only lost a total of 14 games of the 44 they've played.

To say that we are all surprised might be a lie. I think many of us knew what this team was capable of, and many of us figured that they would contend for one of the division spots. But first in the Metropolitan Division, and first in the Conference? Well that was something a bit different.

It has reached the point now, where the Isles are not doing this with smoke and mirrors. Wins like this one over the Penguins - coupled with the other two they have this year - and the one earlier in the week where they chased Henrik Lundqvist has proven this time and time again.

And in typical Isles fashion, they didn't show too much panic in their game after going down 2-0, and then again when they went down 3-2 with just 20 minutes left to play.

The Isles started off a bit slow, allowing two powerplays in the first half of the opening frame and they paid dearly for them. I saw some people questioning the call on the penalty that Michael Grabner was called for. However, in this league, any leg-to-leg contact will be called. It doesn't matter if it's the knees or the ankles, it will be called.

Granted there isn't much that players can do in situations like this, but Grabner needs to be smarter there and play the body. There is no way around this. Don't switch direction at the last minute, because that is only going to make the result worse. And in this case, the Isles missed some much needed speed and defensive play on the resulting penalty kill.

The goal that Sidney Crosby scored here was a bit of a freak one, but he had great positioning in front of the net which allowed the puck to ricochet off of him. With the league's relaxed rules for pucks going in of body parts or items other than sticks it was clear that this was a good goal.

Moments later a bad penalty by Cal Clutterbuck in front of the net gave the Pens another opportunity on the man advantage and another opportunity to snap their PP funk that they've experienced and they delivered with a nice slapper goal from David Perron, who has found a home with the Penguins after years of struggling to find ice time in St. Louis and wins in Edmonton. The Isles were down in a 2-0 hole, and I disagreed with Jack Capuano not using his time out at this point. The Isles needed to be reminded that they had to be smarter with their sticks, but it seemed that this issue was not that big of a deal anyway because the refs got it out of their system and generally kept the whistles in their pockets for the 2nd and 3rd period.

Despite being down 2-0 the Isles knew that they still had a chance. It was early and it's hard enough being down to a quality team like the Penguins but as we've seen so much already this season, the Isles were up to the task.

It was the Okposo show from that point forward, and he'd get the goal to open the scoring for the Isles. But lets not discount the excellent puck handling of John Tavares to deke around Simon Despres and get the puck across to Okposo crashing the net. This was the type of play that the Isles needed to beat this team and I think this goal helped get their minds in order for this style.

Unfortunately they were unable to replicate much of this during the second period, and the Penguins were able to control some of the play for stretches. The Isles and Jaroslav Halak did a good job of keeping them out of much trouble for most of the period but the last few minutes were tough.

Ryan Strome was excellent in the game and had a few key shifts in the second period that helped the Isles out, including one on which he scored the goal to tie the game at two. Strome has been getting to the front of the net more these days which is something remarkable when you consider his stature and his skill set. But it has been paying dividends, and that was the case on Friday night as well. Strome shook off two Pens defenders a couple of times, finally getting a 3rd opportunity that he just threw at the net. The puck deflected in off of Marc-Andre Fleury, and it was a bad goal for him to give up. But this was the old adage of "throw pucks at the net" coming to fruition.

As I mentioned before the last few minutes of the second were tough, and the Isles started to become a little more pedestrian than would normally be acceptable when you're playing a top team. All it took was a few moments of a brain lapse, and Crosby was left wide open to the left of Halak for an easy goal. Calvin de Haan focused a lot on Paul Martin, and the only reason the puck was down that low on a defenseman's stick was because the Isles got caught deep in their zone and let Kris Letang work from the corner and move the puck towards the crease.

That left the Isles 20 minutes to try and figure out a way to come back, against a team that had only lost a couple of games when leading after two periods. Enter Okposo.

Okposo lead the Isles charge in crashing the net and it continued to pay off. If you look at the goals he scored, they weren't of the prettiest variety except for that one from the slot area. The Isles had tremendous presence deep in the offensive zone and played well from along the boards that it created some great chances for them.

Fleury continued to give up some bad rebounds and this had an effect as well. But the Isles needed to get their legs moving, as Okposo did on the goal that tied the game up at three, out skating the defender to a lose puck for a chip-in goal. The few nice shifts the Isles had early on carried over throughout the game, and they quickly adjusted to what was working against the Penguins.

I don't think that Halak had a bad game by any means, and the goals scored against him were unfortunate. Despite how much of a slump Pittsburgh might have been in on the powerplay, you cannot give them these opportunities. The Isles perhaps were a little overanxious and it lead to a few bad plays that the Pens cashed in on.

I think a lot of people were not completely sure what to make of this Isles team just yet, but these recent wins will hold a lot of weight. A 3-1 record against the Pens this year should, as well.

The Isles have had several quality wins this season on their way to the top, and will have to keep that momentum going against teams like Montreal, who they haven't quite figured out. They will have an opportunity to on Saturday night - without Carey Price. Now is as good a time as any for the Islanders to try and establish themselves as contenders among these other leaders of the Conference.

- Chris

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