BUFFALO – The zero attached to Sabres captain Kyle Okposo’s name wouldn’t go away, looming larger and larger as the weeks went on.
Two weeks quickly turned into a month and then five weeks. On Thanksgiving, at the 19-game mark, nearly one-quarter of the season, Okposo hadn’t scored a goal.
“It’s not a fun feeling, for sure, that zero,” the veteran winger said following Friday’s practice in KeyBank Center.
Finally, on Nov. 24, Okposo’s shot deflected off Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson and into the net. Sure, it was a fluky goal, but it counted.
“Got a nice break on the first one, and then away we go,” Okposo said.
Very quietly, Okposo, 35, has transformed into one of the Sabres’ top offensive threats again in the last month, scoring a team-high eight goals in 15 outings. He has compiled two goals and six points in the last six games.
Entering Friday’s schedule, only five players in the NHL – Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Brock Boeser, Nikita Kucherov and Mika Zibanejad – had scored more goals during that stretch.
Okposo was one of 12 players who had scored eight times. Among that group, he had the lowest ice time (14 minutes, 47 seconds per game) and the lowest power-play goal total (one) since Nov. 24. He’s also the only player who primarily plays a checking role.
Entering tonight’s road game against the New York Rangers, the Sabres’ final contest before their three-day Christmas break, Okposo is scoring at a 19-goal pace over a full season.
If he hits 20 goals, he would become the Sabres’ first player 35 or older to reach that mark since Dave Andreychuk did it at 38 in 2000-01.
“It’s a milestone, it’s a nice benchmark for kind of where you want to be, especially late in my career, but I just want to contribute, and I know I can contribute offensively,” Okposo said.
The American has proven that this week. He registered two goals in Thursday’s 9-3 demolition of the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring on a short-handed breakaway in the second period to put the Sabres up 6-3 and from the slot late in the game. He also got stopped on another breakaway in the second period.
“That was wild,” he said of having two breakaways in one period.
Okposo also scored in Tuesday’s ugly 9-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So, what’s changed? How did he bust out of his offensive rut?
“Just trying to shoot and just make sure I’m assertive and confident with the puck,” said Okposo, who has scored 238 goals in his 1,018-game career. “I think that sometimes in my head I can get just so focused on work and work that I forget to settle down and make some plays, and I think that’s kind of contributing to some offense and me getting some more chances.”
Sabres coach Don Granato said Okposo, who scored 11 times last season, has “made a career on being very, very intense.”
“You take a breath, you can see things better in different moments,” he said.
Okposo’s penchant for shooting has buoyed his offensive surge. During his goalless run, he recorded only 21 shots on net, just 1.1 per game. Since Nov. 24, he has pumped 34 shots on goal, 2.7 per outing.
His offense, while needed by the Sabres, is a bit of a bonus. At this stage of his career, leadership – the examples he sets on and off the ice – has become his greatest asset.
Early in his career, Okposo said he was regarded as a leader, but if he wasn’t playing well, “I didn’t think I was as good of a leader.”
“That’s something I’ve really tried to work on is, like, I know what kind person I am, I know that I can be a leader in this group no matter how I’m playing,” he said. “And so I take a lot of solace in that, and I know that I’m going to turn it because I’m going to work my way out of it. That’s what I kind of take pride in.”
Okposo recently became the latest Sabres players to start wearing a neck guard.
After former NHL player Adam Johnson’s death from a skate blade cut to his neck during a game Oct. 28 in England, players at all levels have been adding guards.
Okposo said his son, Odin, wanted him to put one on.
“He told me before the Vegas game, he’s like, ‘Dad, I feel like you’re going to get cut. Like, why don’t you wear a neck guard?’” he said. “And I didn’t really have a good answer for him. So I figured I’d be a good dad and set an
The Sabres on Friday officially loaned forward prospect Jiri Kulich, who’s playing with the Rochester Americans, to the Czechia national junior team for the upcoming World Junior Championship.