December 23 – Day 72 – Kyle Okposo-ing the Isles

It’s here you guys. The last day of hockey until Tuesday. Get your tears out now.

I know, the world couldn’t get any worse. We just need to enjoy tonight while it lasts.

Fortunately, there’s a dozen games for us to choose from for our last night of hockey for the next 6810 minutes. The action starts at 7 p.m. with five contests (Buffalo at the New York Islanders, Minnesota at the New York Rangers, New Jersey at Pittsburgh [TVAS], Tampa Bay at Washington [SN1] and Montréal at Columbus [RDS]), followed half an hour later by another pair of games (Detroit at Florida and Boston at Carolina). 8:30 p.m. brings with it the puck drop of two more games (Colorado at Chicago and Los Angeles at Dallas), with another duo of matches waiting until the top of the hour (Vancouver at Calgary and Toronto at Arizona). Finally, Edmonton at San Jose, acting as this evening’s nightcap, gets green lit at 10:30 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Buffalo at New York: Kyle Okposo played nine seasons wearing blue and orange, but he traded the orange for gold this offseason.
  • Boston at Carolina: Both John-Michael Liles and Riley Nash used to call PNC Arena home, combining for almost 400 games for the Hurricanes.
  • Vancouver at Calgary: No notable returns here. Just a good, old-fashioned rivalry.

Since Okposo has had such an impact on both his clubs, we’ll take in his warm reception this evening at the Barclays Center.

Unknown-2New York Islanders Logo

 

Okposo’s time with New York began in as the seventh-overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and by 2008 he was consistently earning regular playing time.

Although he notched 52 points in his 2009-’10 campaign, Okposo’s career really took off in 2013-’14. He buried 27 goals that year en route to a 69 point season – both career-highs (the 42 assists he notched that season, also a career high, was tied last season) – for the best point-mark on the club.

His next season was derailed by a detached retina (yes, like the retina in your eyeball) and its associated surgery. In 2015-’16, he got right back on track, equaling that 42 assist-mark from 2013-14 and scoring the puck on his own 22 times, the third-most on the squad.

This offseason, Okposo took advantage of his recent success to test the free agency market, and ended up in Buffalo on a seven-year, $42 million contract. He’s had an immediate impact, as his nine tallies are tops on the team.

Although he was one of many to leave the Islanders in a tough spot, New Yorkers should provide a warm welcome to their old friend.

Okposo’s new club enters tonight’s game with a 12-12-8 record, good enough for only seventh-place in the Atlantic Division. Although the defense and goaltending has been phenomenal, the offense has not done enough to earn the Sabres more victories.

That offense has managed only 69 goals so far this season, the second-fewest in the NHL. Although defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen leading the team with 23 points is not entirely a bad thing, it must be alarming for general manager Tim Murray given that 60.16% of his salary cap is being spent on forwards. As stated before, Okposo has lit the lamp the most on the team, scoring nine times.

Although the offense as a whole has struggled, the power play has certainly not. Scoring 22.8% of the time, the Sabres are the fourth-best team in the league with the man-advantage. Ristolainen has taken the lead in this department as well with 13 power play points to his credit, but it has been Matt Moulson who has finished many of those plays, scoring seven times.

Just as good as Buffalo is at scoring with the extra man, they are equally as unimpressive when defending against it. The Sabres have stopped only 74.7% of opposing power plays, the second-worst rate in the league. Although Josh Gorges (16) and Ristolainen (14) both have decent amounts of shorthanded blocks to their credit, they are the only two skaters with more than eight. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before, but the penalty kill needs to be more of a priority for the Sabres if they want to take the next step towards returning to the playoffs.

Playing host this evening are the 12-14-6 Islanders, the worst team in the Eastern Conference. It is my opinion that the reason they haven’t found success yet is due to their struggles on the defensive end, as their 99 goals allowed ends up being the third-highest scoring-against average (3.09) in the NHL.

Three goalies have taken their try at New York‘s crease this season, but most of the time it is 5-8-5 Jaroslav Halak. Through 19 appearances, he’s earned a .907 save percentage and 3.13 GAA, the (t)31st and 43rd-best effort among the 49 goalies with nine or more appearances this season.

While this is no doubt one of Halak’s worst performances of his career, he can’t shoulder all the blame. His defense is not doing him any favors by allowing 33.3 shots-per-game to reach his crease per night, the second-highest average in the NHL. While Calvin de Haan has certainly been impressive with his team-leading 95 shot blocks, he is the only skater with more than 70 to his credit.  Just like I said for Buffalo, this is an aspect of New York‘s game that needs to change immediately if they want any hope of saving their quickly disappearing season.

As would be expected, those struggles have sneaked into the penalty kill, where the Islanders rank sixth-worst after neutralizing only 78.7% of opposing power plays. Once again, de Haan has been very productive with his 19 shorthanded blocks, but the rest of the club needs to step up to take pressure off Halak.

Unfortunately, the bad news continues on the power play, where New York‘s 13.5% success rate is the third-worst mark in the league. Both Nick Leddy and John Tavares have six man-advantage points to their credit, and the power play goal scoring title is currently shared between Anders Lee and Tavares, both with three tallies on their resume.

Some players to keep an eye on tonight include Buffalo‘s Anders Nilsson (.933 save percentage [tied for fourth-best in the league]), should he play, and New York‘s Dennis Seidenberg (+11 [leads the team]).

Vegas has marked the Islanders a -133 favorite to win tonight’s game, but I’m not so certain the spread should be even that large. I’ll side with the Isles simply because they’re playing at home and the Sabres played last night in Buffalo while tonight’s hosts were resting.

Hockey Birthday

  • Vadim Sharifijanov (1975-) – Last Saturday, we talked about draft picks that don’t pan out. Let’s revisit that real quick. This right wing was the 25th-overall pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft by New Jersey, but he ended up playing only 92 games in the league.
  • Scott Gomez (1979) – Another Devils draft pick, this center was selected 27th-overall in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. Although he spent most of his 16 seasons in Jersey, Gomez played with seven different clubs en route to two All Star selections, two Stanley Cups and the 2000 Calder Trophy.
  • T.J. Oshie (1986-) – The 24th-overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by St. Louis, he played seven seasons with the Blues before being traded to Washington before last season. Of course, he’s most known for his six shootout attempts at the 2014 Winter Olympics to give Team USA a 3-2 victory over Russia.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a blowout like yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as Columbus whipped the Penguins 7-1 at Nationwide Arena.

It looked like Pittsburgh was off to a good start, as Sidney Crosby (Ian Cole and Conor Sheary) buried a snap shot only 2:39 into the contest, but that lead lasted only 10:22 before Cam Atkinson (Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg) scored a power play snap shot. That one-all tie held into the second period.

William Karlsson (Sam Gagner and Josh Anderson) takes credit for the winning tally with 9:45 remaining in the second frame, and 2:05 seconds later First Star of the Game Scott Hartnell buried the first of six insurance goals. The Jackets took their 3-1 lead into the second intermission.

It was the third period where things really went awry for Pittsbrugh. Starting only 2:44 after returning to the ice, Hartnell (Gagner and Jack Johnson), Second Star Brandon Saad (Wennberg), Boone Jenner (Brandon Dubinsky and Seth Jones) and Hartnell again (Dubinsky and Saad) combined for the Columbus onslaught to ensure their 11th-straight victory.

Sergei Bobrovsky earns the victory after saving 25-of-26 shots faced (96.2%), while Matthew Murray managed to save only 17-of-23 (73.9%) in the loss. He was replaced following Jenner’s goal by Marc-Andre Fleury, who saved four-of-five (80%) for no decision.

Columbus‘ victory is the third straight by a home team, setting the DtFR Game of the Day series at 40-23-11 in favor of the hosts, who lead the visitors by nine points.