There was a time barely a few months ago when Kyle Okposo wondered if he'd be able to see again out of his left eye, much less play again. Or play a significant role in an Islanders playoff series.
He got those first two big worries out of the way during the final month of the regular season, returning after missing 22 games following surgery to repair a detached retina to at least get back on the ice regularly, if not to a dominant level.
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Entering Game 4 of the first-round series with the Caps Tuesday night, no one on either side is left to wonder if Okposo can dominate games. He has scored in the past two games and, much as he was two years ago in his only other playoff appearance, he has been a physical force.
Capitals forward Eric Fehr took the brunt of that force early in Game 3. He absorbed a hard, clean hit from Okposo that sent him into the boards, down to the ice and out of that game and at least the next two with an upper-body injury.
"It's a different animal in the playoffs," Okposo said after a brief practice at Nassau Coliseum yesterday. "You obviously want to play more physical. It's a tougher game, a rougher game. Your intent's never to hurt anybody, but I just want to finish my hits, hit guys hard and let 'em know you're there. It's unfortunate for him that he's injured."
Okposo was coming off a healthy but inconsistent 2013 season, with only four goals in the lockout-shortened 48-game season, when he made his NHL playoff debut. Early in the second period of Game 2 against the Penguins, with the Islanders down a game and down 3-1, Okposo decided his team needed some sort of spark.
He lit the fuse by fighting Matt Niskanen, and 14 seconds later, Colin McDonald scored. Okposo scored the winner in the third period and the Islanders snapped to life.
"I think we were a little shell-shocked, the first time in the playoffs for a lot of us," John Tavares said. "That seemed to settle us down and remind us why we were there."
Okposo had three goals against the Penguins, a big performance on a big stage. He has 120 points in 131 regular-season games since then, and it doesn't appear to be a coincidence.
It's also no coincidence that Okposo is throwing his body around more this series than he did in the regular season. Even though Game 4 will be only his 10th career playoff game, he clearly knows where the levels need to be raised.
"You definitely get engaged more in the game," he said. "If you're playing physical, you're into the game and you seem to be around the puck. It definitely adds a different element."
To even be on the ice now is something Okposo cherishes. After scoring five goals in three games before the All-Star break in January, he couldn't shake the blurred vision that had turned to pain in his left eye. The detached retina diagnosis and need for immediate surgery scared him, as did the few idle weeks he needed to heal.
"Every day, especially after the eye surgery, every day I can play hockey is definitely nice," he said. "I'm happy I have my sight and I'm able to play. Now that I do, you have to help your team any way you can."