Kyle Okposo has found a groove following a slow start. ©2022, Micheline Veluvolu

After injury, slow start, Sabres captain Kyle Okposo producing offense again

BUFFALO – As Sabres captain Kyle Okposo struggled through the first week of the season, he tried to keep a strong perspective and any negative thoughts to a minimum.

Okposo, 34, wanted to give his mind a break during a hectic time. An upper-body injury had sidelined him during the final days of training camp, costing him valuable preparation time as he began his 16th NHL campaign. He had also just been named the 20th full-time captain in franchise history.

The veteran winger, fresh off a terrific 21-goal season, told himself everything would turn as long as he worked.

“I just tried to put my head down and make sure that I was focusing on the things that I need to do to make sure that my game was good,” Okposo said following Thursday’s practice at KeyBank Center.

Still, his weak production – he mustered just one assist and four shots on goal in his first four outings – got in his head a little bit. Was age finally catching up to him?

“First five (games) I was really trying to find it,” he said. “Those questions start, like, ‘Oh man, you still have it?’ You start questioning kind of everything. But missing some time in camp definitely doesn’t help.”

Okposo enters tonight’s road contest against the Carolina Hurricanes enjoying his best stretch all season. During the Sabres’ three-game winning streak, he has consistently created offense, scoring his first goal this season and five points.

The American said he had no idea he was playing through his injury during the preseason.

“I shouldn’t have been,” he said.

For about week, Okposo said wasn’t his normal self. But having just earned the captaincy, he wasn’t about to miss opening night.

“I wanted to make sure that I was back for that first game,” he said. “I mean, nobody was going to tell me no. If it was in December, maybe I’d take an extra couple days and make sure that it was all the way. But really wanted to be out there for opening night. Just a little setback but nothing crazy.”

The 6-foot, 218-pound Okposo has slowly built his game over the past two weeks. He said he started to turn the corner Oct. 22 against the Vancouver Canucks. When the Sabres returned home Oct. 27 to play the Montreal Canadiens, he said he finally felt like himself.

“With Kyle and any player, it does take games to get back to your game,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I mean, it’s just early-season NHL hockey, it’s not mid-season NHL hockey. So the entire league is individually and collectively finding their game, finding a rhythm, finding their timing, their conditioning level.”

After Granato promoted Okposo to right wing on the top line late in Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks, he ignited the Sabres’ comeback, assisting on both of center Tage Thompson’s third-period goals.

Okposo added two more assists in Monday’s 8-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings. He scored in Wednesday’s 6-3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, potting an empty-netter to put the Sabres up two goals.

“My game’s been pretty good, I think, over the last five, I would say,” Okposo said. “… It just took a little bit longer, but I really like where I’m at. I feel relaxed out there, I feel like I’m in a good spot. I feel like it was definitely building toward that. It’s just nice to get the bagel off the score sheet.”

Okposo scored thanks to winger Zemgus Girgensons’ dogged effort to negate an icing. He raced down from the Buffalo zone, beating Kris Letang to the puck after defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s long lob at the open net. The Latvian then fended off three Penguins along the end boards and lost his helmet before getting the puck to Okposo.

“It was funny, right when he shot the puck, I saw Z and I knew he was going to beat it, because just knowing Z, it was just awesome, just quintessential 28 doing what he does for us,” Okposo said. “For him to battle like that, kill time, helmet pops off, goes hard to the bench, those 20 seconds sum Z up, who is as a teammate and as a competitor.”

Having been teammates for seven seasons, Okposo has developed a special appreciation for Girgensons’ work ethic. The friends have spent much of the season as linemates.

Since Saturday, Okposo has mostly skated with Thompson and Jeff Skinner. But he also took some shifts late Wednesday with center Dylan Cozens’ line and, of course, Girgensons.

Okposo feels the Sabres have reached a stage in their maturation where all of the forwards can play with each other.

“We’ve all been here long enough now where we know each others’ tendencies,” he said. “I think I have a pretty good handle on what everybody’s going to do. So it’s a lot of fun to play with everybody. I love that about our team is that there’s not just lines that stay together and are going to be staples for 50 games in a row. Everybody can kind of play with everybody depending on the night.”

One thought on “After injury, slow start, Sabres captain Kyle Okposo producing offense again”

  1. I used to question why the Sabres kept Girgenson on the roster a couple years ago, but have come to appreciate his rather unique skill set. He does the not so noticeable but essential things that don’t always show up on the player’s stats that are publicized. That play he made on the would be icing call was an effort that wouldn’t have been seen 2 years ago. The Sabres have become an exciting team to watch and follow again. It’s a real credit to the organization, GM, Coach, and the player’s that we are seeing results nobody would have dared to dream of back when Don Granato was named interim coach. I started watching the Sabres the year they went to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers almost 50 years ago, and I can truly say I am just as excited now, after such a long decade of futility, with the team’s roster and direction as I was back then. I truly wondered what Don Granato and Kevin Adams could possibly do to right the ship when there seemed there was almost nothing to work with. But I stuck with the Sabres, because like the Bills, there just isn’t any other team I care to follow. I have seen the changes taking place, sometimes a bit slowly, but surely during the terrible record losing streak, and to see the player’s respond to the coach’s challenge, and bloom into truly skilled professional players is amazing and gratifying. It applies to nearly every player on the roster, including the veterans that looked washed up, returning to the form we expected when they were drafted or traded for. The Sabres are still going to be a surprise to those teams who still think they are the league’s cellar dweller laughingstock losers they had been previously. I don’t blame some for holding their breath tensely awaiting a crash and burn, but I have watched the changes take place, and this is just the start of a grand reestablishing of the proud excellence the Sabres had always demonstrated for so many years. Things are different, seeing the response after a blowout, and after a 2 game losing streak proves this isn’t a team cut from the same sorry cloth of recent years.

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