Yesterday, we brought you NHL.com's feature on former Gopher Kyle Okposo and the St. Paul native's stellar play over the last month.
Okposo continued to produce for the New York Islanders with a goal (his third goal and fourth point in four playoff games) in last night's 6-4 win over Paul Martin and the Pittsburgh Penguins that tied the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at 2-2.
But it's not just that Okposo is scoring goals...it's how he's scoring them.
Last night, Okposo evened the game at 3-3 in the second period (New York would go on to outscore the Penguins 3-1 in the third) when he threw a backhanded attempt from behind the net off Marc-Andre Fleury into the net.
In game three's 5-4 overtime loss, Okposo tipped a no-look pass to himself to setup this shorthanded goal that started a two-goal rally to force overtime.
Former Gopher Kyle Okposo and the New York Islanders are back in action tonight with game four of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series with Paul Martin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And while the Islanders are down 2-1 in the series, NHL.com's John Kreiser points out that the St. Paul native is playing his best hockey right now for New York.
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- It's not surprising that the New York Islanders' best player thus far in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins is one of their first-round picks in a past NHL Draft. The surprise is which one.
While John Tavares, the first player chosen in 2009, is the focal point of the Islanders, 2006 first-rounder Kyle Okposo has been playing the best hockey of his career and given New York the kind of two-way production the team has been looking for since making him the seventh player chosen seven years ago.
Okposo and linemates Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey were arguably the Islanders' best forward unit in April, when New York used a season-closing 8-1-4 run to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007. Okposo has carried his improved play into the postseason, scoring the winning goal in the Islanders' 4-3 victory in Game 2 and scoring the first shorthanded goal of his career to spark a third-period rally in Game 3 before the Penguins won 5-4 in overtime.
"I'm playing with a bit more of an edge," Okposo said after Monday's practice when asked what was different in his game. "You try to go out there and make an impact on the game, and I've been doing a better job of that. I didn't start the regular season [the way] I wanted to. I'm just trying to have a better postseason."
The Islanders have been waiting for Okposo to be a difference maker since they brought him to the NHL late in the 2007-08 season. He's shown flashes of the talent that attracted the Islanders, but has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his career.
After finishing the 2011-12 season on a hot streak that led to a career-high 24 goals, the Islanders moved him to right wing on Tavares' line to start this season. But the chemistry wasn't there, and he was moved back onto a line with Nielsen and Bailey. The trio took a while to click, but by late March they had provided the Islanders with a viable second scoring line -- preventing opponents from devoting all their energy to shutting down Tavares' line.
"We had confidence playing together from the past, and I think it carried over into this season," said Bailey, a first-round pick in 2008 who's had his own ups and downs. "We liked our game through the last portion of the season especially."
Bailey, who was moved to Tavares' line in Game 2, said Okposo has brought his game to a new level.
"He's been a horse for us all season," Bailey said. "But I think now you're really seeing the determination that he has and that he plays with. Lots of us have fed off that."
Through the first three games of this series, Okposo has done two things he'd never done before in his five-plus NHL seasons. He helped turn the momentum in Game 2 by battling Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen in his first NHL fight, then scored the first shorthanded goal of his career in Game 3.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano said the lockout and the quick start to the season may have hurt Okposo's game.
"Some players with the lockout [had a] late start," Capuano said. "Midway through the season, he started to play like the Kyle Okposo we need him to play like.
"He's a great leader for us. He stepped up in Game 2 and did what he had to do. When a player is playing with confidence, he's moving his feet -- it lifts his whole game."
Perhaps the most notable trait Okposo has shown in recent weeks is his relentlessness. He's made life miserable for puck-carriers and has taken his compete level to a new high.
"I don't know if I would say more aggressive," he said when asked about changes in his play. "It's just finishing your hits and [being] harder on the puck. I think one of my best attributes is winning battles, and I've tried to elevate my battle level and try not to be denied."
Phil Kessel and Toronton fell to 5-2 to Boston on Monday night as the Bruins took a 2-1 lead in the NHL first-round playoff series.
The former Gopher did notch his second goal of the playoffs in the contest, knocking home a loose puck just 47 seconds into the third period to make it a 4-2 game (Boston added an empty netter with just over a minute left).
Game four of the series is set for Thursday at 8 p.m. CT.
-Also in NHL playoff action, Jordan Leopold and St. Louis fell 4-3 to defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles to even the series at 2-2. The New York Rangers topped Washington 4-3 to cut the series to 2-1 in favor of the Caps. Former Gopher Stu Bickel was a scratch for the Rangers.
-Lots of Gophers in NHL action tonight. Paul Martin and the Pittsburgh Penguins take on Kyle Okposo, Aaron Ness and the New York Islanders tonight at 6 p.m. CT on the NBC Sports Network. Pittsburgh holds a 2-1 lead in the series. Nick Leddy and Chicago also hold a 2-1 lead over Minnesota and will hit the ice tonight at 8:30 CT on FOX Sports North and the NBC Sports Network. Jim O'Brien and Ottawa are up 2-1 on Montreal, and Keith Ballard and Vancouver are in a must-win game tonight against San Jose, down 3-0 in the series.
-Still some Gophers in AHL action -- Hershey (Nate Schmidt, Ryan Potulny, Jeff Taffe, Ryan Stoa, Mike Carman) takes on Providence in a deciding game five of an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series tomorrow night. Jake Hansen and Springfield have already advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals after winning a best-of-five series with Manchester 3-1.
-Reminder: Minnesota has three alums in action today at the 2013 IIHF World Championships. Team USA (Nick Bjugstad, Erik Johnson) returns to action on Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. CT against Russia on the NBC Sports Network. Thomas Vanek and Austria take on Latvia today.
We had more Gopher vs. Gopher NHL playoff action on Sunday as Paul Martin and the Pittsburgh Penguins topped Kyle Okposo and the New York Islanders 5-4 in overtime to take a 2-1 lead in the first-round playoff series.
Martin, who returned to the Penguins' lineup for the regular-season finale after an injury sidelined him for nearly a month, added a pair of assists in the win including this helper on Chris Kunitz's game-deciding, power-play goal at 8:44 of overtime.
Martin now has three assists in three playoff games this season.
Okposo, meanwhile, added a goal and an assist on Sunday after tallying the game winner on Friday for the Islanders. The former Gophers' short-handed goal on Sunday stopped a New York slide that saw Pittsburgh score four-straight goals after going down 2-0 early and started a rally that forced overtime.
IIHF World Championships Update
The U.S. Men's National Team added a 4-1 win over Latvia on Sunday in Helsinki with Erik Johnson picking up an assist. Team USA returns to action on Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. CT against Russia. Tuesday's game airs live on the NBC Sports Network.
Meanwhile, Thomas Vanek and Austria fell 3-1 to France on Sunday with the former Gopher scoring Austria's only goal -- and his first of the tournament. Austria returns to action on Tuesday against Latvia.
Lots of action on Friday night (and early Saturday morning) as the NHL playoffs continued and the 2013 IIHF World Championships got underway over in Europe.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the night was Kyle Okposo's game-winning goal in the New York Islanders' 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins to even their playoff series at 1-1. The odd goal capped a dramatic comeback for the Islanders that saw Okposo's squad rally from a 3-1 deficit after the first period (and also saw Okposo drop the gloves).
Gophers Face Off at World Championships
Erik Johnson scored twice and Nick Bjugstad added a pair of assists as the U.S. National Team rallied to beat Thomas Vanek and Austria 5-3 early Saturday morning in the 2013 IIHF World Championships opener.
Johnson's first goal of the game tied the contest at 2-2 with a primarily assist from Bjugstad in a "Gopher on Gopher connection," according to Johnson.
"To come in and contribute in the first game is definitely big," Johnson said after the game. "To get the first one out of the way with a win, especially coming down from a two-goal deficit early in the game, is big for our club. We can't get comfortable, just have to keep going and get better from here."
Team USA returns to action on Sunday vs. Latvia at 12:15 p.m. CT. NBC Sports Live Extra will stream the game live in the U.S. with NBC Sports Network televising the game on tape delay at 12:15 a.m. CT on May 6.
Former Gophers Erik Johnson, Nick Bjugstad and Thomas Vanek will open the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships on opposite ends of the ice on Saturday morning as Bjugstad and Johnson's U.S. team takes on Vanek and the Austrian team.
Just a reminder that NBC Sports Network will carry all of the U.S. team's action throughout the tournament including tomorrow's 4:15 a.m. opener. Here's a full broadcast schedule from USA Hockey.
Gopher hockey greats John Mayasich and Doug Woog will be inducted into the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) Hall of Fame later this month in St. Paul.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is scheduled for Sunday, May 19, at 1 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul Riverfront Hotel. The public is invited to attend. For event tickets, contact the League office at 763-560-2262 or go to the League website -- MSHSL.org -- and click on the 2013 Hall of Fame Invitation link on the home page.
The League's Hall of Fame, which is sponsored by Wells Fargo, was started in 1991. The 2013 class is the 20th group to be inducted. The inductees were chosen through a multi-level selection process that included League member schools and a committee of athletics, fine arts, and educational leaders. This year's class brings the Hall of Fame membership to 196.
His name will be forever linked to amateur hockey in Minnesota. John Mayasich is simply one of the greatest players ever to lace up skates in the state. At Eveleth High School he set his reputation in stone, playing on four state championship teams from 1948 to 1951, setting 10 individual state tournament records that remarkably still stand today.
He scored a record total of 46 points, 36 goals, and 7 hat tricks in four tournaments. In 1951 he scored the most goals in one tournament -- 15, including a record seven goals in one game. The Eveleth team's four consecutive championships also still stands as a tournament record. The team went an undefeated 69-0 over that four-year stretch.
Mayasich continued his stellar career at the University of Minnesota. From 1952 to 1955 the perennial All-American became the Gophers' all-time leading scorer with 144 goals and 154 assists in 111 games. His 298 points remain the most in school history.
Mayasich set scoring records and won many WCHA and NCAA tournament honors, including MVP and Player of the Year. He was a member of the 1956 silver medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team and the 1960 gold medal team.
This Minnesota all-time hockey great has been inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the National High School Hall of Fame and the "M" Club Hall of Fame. The Gophers retired Mayasich's No. 8 jersey, the only former Golden Gopher to be so honored.
Doug Wood, Coach/Athlete
Doug Woog was considered one of the premier amateur athletes of his era. At South St. Paul High School he earned nine varsity letters in football, baseball and hockey, but it was on the hockey rink that he dominated. The perennial all-state player led the Packers to four state hockey tournaments from 1959 to 1962. The team's best finishes came in 1961 and in 1962 when the Packers finished second and third, respectively. Woog's superior tournament play earned him a place on the all-tournament team three times.
Following high school, the star athlete attended the University of Minnesota to play under legendary coach John Mariucci. Woog led the Gophers in scoring in his junior year. As a senior he was named the team's Most Valuable Player and also received All-American honors.
Woog returned to South St. Paul High School in 1977 to coach the boys' hockey and soccer teams. The soccer teams he coached from 1977 to 1982 won four conference titles and played in four state tournaments, twice finishing as runners-up. He guided the Packers hockey teams to three state tournaments in his six seasons as head coach. The team finished third in 1978 and fourth in 1979. Woog's reputation landed him a stint as special assistant coach for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.
In 1985 he was named head hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, leading the Gophers to new heights. The team made 12 NCAA appearances in 14 seasons, six NCAA Final Four appearances, and Woog became the university's all-time winning coach with a 389-187-40 record. He resigned the post in 1999.
In 1989 Woog coached the U.S. Olympic Festival South Team to a gold medal. Woog is in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the South St. Paul High School Hall of Fame. He was awarded the American Hockey Coaches Association's John MacInnes Award for his work with youth and amateur hockey.
Former Gopher Nick Bjugstad tallied his first NHL goal on Saturday as the Florida Panthers topped the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 in Florida's season finale.
"That was pretty exciting for me," Bjugstad told the Associated Press. "I didn't really expect it. It's tough in the NHL getting shots, so I just put it on net, and it went in."
-Paul Martin had two assists for the Penguins in an 8-3 Pittsburgh win over Carolina on Saturday including James Neal's eventual game winner. Martin, who played in his first game in nearly a month (injury), earned his 200th career assist in the win as Pittsburgh finished the regular season with the Eastern Conference's best record.
-Phil Kessel netted Toronto's only goal in a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Saturday -- Kessel's power-play goal was his 20th of the year and put the Maple Leafs up 1-0 early in the contest.
-Both Stu Bickel (N.Y. Rangers) and Aaron Ness (N.Y. Islanders) have been recalled by their NHL teams ahead of the playoffs.
Gophers in the Playoffs
With the regular season ending this weekend, nine former Gophers will be heading to the playoffs this year with their respective NHL franchises. Here's the breakdown:
Pittsburgh (Paul Martin) vs. N. Y. Islanders (Ness, Kyle Okposo)
Today, the Buffalo Sabres tweeted that former Gopher Thomas Vanek will skate for Austria at the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships next month in Europe. The tournament, which runs May 3-19 in Helsinski, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden, now features three former Gophers as Nick Bjugstad and Erik Johnson will skate for the U.S. Men's National Team.
While the Sabres had a disappointing end to the 2012-13 campaign, Vanek thrived as the team's leader in points (41) and goals (20, 10th in the NHL this season) in the 38-game season. The forward also finished tied for first on the team in assists with 21.
Vanek said he'll be representing Austria at next month's IIHF World Championships.