Kyle Okposo (21) skates away from Calgary’s Troy Brouwer last season. ©2018, Hickling Images, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ Kyle Okposo piling up points

BUFFALO – Late in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss, Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson stymied a rush and quickly dished the puck up to winger Kyle Okposo.

Okposo then zoomed through the neutral zone and into the high slot when he noticed center Evan Rodrigues streaking down the right wing.

“I saw that their D was kind of shading over toward (Evander Kane), so I just tried to take the middle,” Okposo explained Friday. “I was going to shoot it, they were kind of letting me walk down, the D kind of slid and kind of got caught flatfooted, so I noticed Roddy had basically a breakaway.”

So Okposo pump-faked and fed Rodrigues in the right circle. A split-second later, Rodrigues’ wicked shot beat Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson under the crossbar, putting the Sabres up 2-1 with 4:30 left in the third period.

Rodrigues said Okposo’s subtle move created an extra second for him to corral the puck and pick his spot.

While the Senators scored late and again in overtime, at a critical time, Okposo’s skills and savvy nearly pushed the Sabres to their fifth straight road win.

Okposo, 29, has been making a lot more notable plays recently. After a slow start, the 10-year veteran has been enjoying a hot streak, compiling 16 points in the last 16 games entering this afternoon’s tilt against the Los Angeles Kings inside KeyBank Center.

With top center Jack Eichel sidelined indefinitely with a high right ankle sprain, Okposo’s contributions have become even more critical.

By now, Okposo’s story has been told over and over. A harrowing concussion he suffered late last season left him hospitalized in intensive care. Although he recovered long before the season started, he looked nothing like his old self early on, mustering only two assists in his first 10 outings.

He recently acknowledged coming back was tougher than he had anticipated.

Okposo started finding his groove around Christmas and hasn’t let up much since then. Through 56 appearances, the American has compiled nine goals and 36 points.

Still, Okposo, who has a nine-game goal drought, and Sabres coach Phil Housley know the former NHL All-Star can be better.

“Still riding the roller coaster a little bit, but it’s been a lot better, I think I’ve been on a better trajectory in the last few months,” Okposo said.

Okposo said he liked his performance in Thursday’s loss. The three games prior to that, however, were weak.

“I was … tightening up and thinking too much,” said Okposo, who’s in the second season of a seven-year, $42 million contract. “Last game, I just tried to go out there and play a power game and just tried to move the puck north and play my game. I thought I did a pretty good job of that.”

Housley, though, wasn’t impressed with Okposo’s outing in Ottawa.

“Kyle’s been more consistent the last month,” Housley said. “Like a lot of our guys (Thursday), just didn’t have that extra jump. … His body work (Thursday) isn’t where it needs to be. I think he needs to be tenacious on the forecheck and being tough to play against down low, driving out of coverage in the offensive zone and creating things.

“He’s pretty hard on himself in that respect, he evaluates himself pretty well, but I expect him to rebound (today).”

By his standards, Okposo has compiled an odd stat line. He has already accumulated 26 assists, equaling last season’s total in nine fewer appearances. His goals, meanwhile, are down.

In the last five non-lockout campaigns, he has averaged 22 goals and 33 assists.

“Last year was kind of a down year for that for me (assists-wise),” Okposo said. “If you look at my career, I’ve always been a guy who’s going to get more assists than goals. … I try to make the plays when it’s appropriate. My whole life, every coach I’ve had tells me to shoot more. I probably should … I’ll be 30 here soon.”

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