MINNEAPOLIS -- Kyle Okposo has played close to home before. Playing at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., is as close to home as it gets because he was born across the street from the arena at St. Paul Children's Hospital.
But times have changed since he arrived as a 19-year-old with the Islanders, a highly touted first-round pick on a team that was willing to be patient with a player it hoped would become a perennial 30-goal scorer and a possible future captain.
Okposo didn't score in Saturday night's 2-1 shootout win over the Wild before a packed house in St. Paul that included 65 friends and family members, many decked out in Islanders jerseys. But the night still ended with Okposo, now 23, able to smile and see the positives in his game, unlike what he was doing and thinking through the first month of the season, when he had no goals, three assists and a minus-7 rating through 14 games. He was benched for three games in mid-November.
"I can kind of chuckle about it now," Okposo said after Saturday night's win. "You have bad games throughout the year, but when you're in a stretch like I was where you're not feeling like yourself, it's just mentally draining. You're spending all your time trying to figure out what to do."
The benching didn't sit well at the time, but when Okposo got back in the lineup Nov. 21 in Pittsburgh, he started to play more like the skilled power forward the Islanders need him to be. He has five goals and four assists in his last 12 games, fitting in with Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner much better than he had in the beginning of the season.
He has made many more of his power moves down the wing of late, strong-arming defensemen to create scoring chances.
"A lot of it is just confidence," Okposo said. "That's the way I've played my whole life. When I have confidence, you can see it in my game."
And you can see it in the Islanders' game somewhat; they are 5-5-3 since Okposo returned from his benching. Not great, but it's better than their 4-7-3 record through the first 14 games.
"Maybe it was a good thing," Okposo said of the benching. "You sit up top and you see some plays and you go, 'Hey, I could make that play in my sleep.' You realize that it's not so difficult to do the things you've always done."