In hockey, leadership is vital to a team’s success. Just about every team has a captain who’s expected to lead by example not just on the ice but in the locker room as well. Especially when things aren’t going your way.
Judging from the Rangers’ performance last night, it’s easy to conclude that Chris Drury didn’t make a difference. If one were to look at the inconsistencies of the club on Broadway, it points to no leadership. Even if the roster was poorly constructed, that’s not an excuse. Your most proven players must step up.
While one New York team continues to look lost, the other that resides off the Meadowbrook doesn’t seem to have that problem. Seasoned vets such as team captain Doug Weight, Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton and Trent Hunter have done a respectable job keeping the rebuilding club focused. Picked by many including us to finish near the bottom, these Islanders are defying the odds by not only improving with prize rookie John Tavares but moving ahead of schedule, competing for the postseason.
In what’s an unpredictable East even with Saturday’s disappointment against the Devils, Scott Gordon’s club is tied for 10th with fading Boston (5-1 losers to Carolina)- trailing the Flyers (lost to Pens 2-1), Rangers and Canadiens by a point. They have exactly 30 games remaining in this hectic Olympic year. With a 23-21-8 record good for 54 points, the Islanders are seven points away from matching last season’s league worst total. They’ve done it by outworking opponents and getting contributions from everyone. Without Dwayne Roloson, they wouldn’t be in this position. One of Garth Snow’s wisest choices last summer with camp gem Matt Moulson (team best 19 goals) an unsung hero.
A key player who struggled in the first half is resurgent Kyle Okposo. The third year power wing who the club took seventh overall in 2006 is evolving into an Isles’ leader. Still just 21, the St. Paul Minnesota native is wise beyond his years, fully grasping what it’s all about. Following a dismal first period against the Devils in which his team trailed by one, he criticized their effort feeling they didn’t come to play. Perhaps the club scoring leader (11-24-35) let teammates know about it because they certainly responded, connecting twice on a major, including a goal and a helper from KO, demonstrating that he can back up the words.
Unfortunately, the Islanders were a bit unlucky with Zach Parise’s centering feed deflecting off Freddy Meyer past a helpless Rick DiPietro for the first Devil shot spanning 20-plus minutes. On a night in which they also hit four posts, the club simply couldn’t recover from the bad break with their opponents likely getting a stern talking to from Jacques Lemaire. The Atlantic leaders responded by dominating the third in shots (11-3) and scoring twice, including Bryce Salvador’s seeing eye decider that may have caromed off rookie Kyle Palmieri. The more aggressive team completely neutralized the Isles’ forecheck, forcing turnovers.
Not surprisingly, Okposo and ‘mates expressed frustration, alluding to the non-aggression which cost them a valuable two points in an ever changing race where every point matters. To a man, they’d probably say it was winnable. Good teams don’t give a ton of credit to opponents no matter how good they are. Something which was evident in the Isles’ case.
“We didn’t match their intensity in the first period,” Okposo acknowledged. “In the third period, we just didn’t have it. That was the game right there.”
“We didn’t get our forecheck established and we weren’t putting as much pressure on their (defense) in the offense zone,” DiPietro lamented backing up Okposo. “We got away from it in the third and need to learn from our mistakes.”
Part of the issue was the Devils, who were fortunate to be tied entering the critical stanza. They did a masterful job taking away the middle of the ice while taking the play to the Isles, who were sloppy forcing passes into the teeth of the D. Thus allowing the guys in white, red and black to dictate and come out on top. Gordon was disappointed that they got away from the plan.
“We didn’t push the pace to allow ourselves the opportunity to win the game,” the second-year man pointed out. “We played the game not to lose.”
As we already noted in yesterday’s piece, Gordon’s scrappy bunch play hard lunch pail hockey based on their speed and grit. When on, they’re capable of putting together superb efforts like the 4-0 shutout of the same Devs a week ago. His players have all bought in. Boasting young pieces Tavares, Okposo and improving soph Josh Bailey, the club has a bright future.
“Our scouting staff has done a good job of finding character,” Gordon told NY Post columnist Jay Greenberg. “We don’t have a bad apple on our team.
“Tavares and Bailey are mature kids at 19 and 20. I couldn’t compare myself at what I was like at 19 to what Tavares is. We haven’t come close to seeing what Okposo can do offensively, but even when he was not scoring, he was one of our most important players for what he brings every night.”
Even when he’s not scoring, KO always gives an honest effort utilizing his size and speed to wreak havoc. If lack of production cost him a spot on Team USA with Brian Burke opting to go with experience in Drury, it wasn’t from taking shifts off. True enough. He hasn’t untapped his full potential but already is a solid two-way player who plays big minutes for Gordon, including a PK fixture. It was that attention to detail which led to Blake Comeau’s shorthanded goal in a hard fought 3-2 overtime road win over the Blueshirts. Fittingly, No.21 won it late off some nice work from Bailey. On the kind of game the coach wants to play, he noted:
“They can all move the puck. I want our team to be so good on the forecheck we don’t have to play a lot of defense.”
It doesn’t hurt to have Okposo, who is relentless on the forecheck and strong on the boards always finishing checks. If we were to toss a little kudos their bitter rival’s way, the closest is Ryan Callahan, who ranks in the top three in hits. While he’s not credited with many, the younger Islander forward more often than not comes out with the puck leading to more attack time. Something needed to play such an up-tempo style. Both are similar players but only one was a No.1 pick. With all due respect to the Rangers’ heart and soul, KO possesses more skill as evidenced by his 35 points to Cally’s 27 (12-15-27). Ironically, he’s on Team USA and should comprise a checking line and PK teamed with Drury and possibly captain Jamie Langenbrunner. Had Okposo made it, we may have seen a Devil, Islander and Ranger all on the same line. Maybe next time.
Instead, Okposo- who’s been on a good run since that Dec.26 victory tallying 12 points (6-6-12 in 14 GP) including more than half his 11 markers- will continue playing the rugged game which will make him a pain in the butt to play against for quite a while. No doubt he’ll keep improving maybe even one day becoming the Islanders’ captain. Don’t doubt it for a second.