RALEIGH, N.C. -- There were plenty who wondered what Kyle Okposo's strong finish to the 2011-12 season meant.
Okposo ended last season with a career-high 24 goals. Was it a sign that the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft had turned a corner? Or was his success the result of the pressure being off, with the Islanders again finishing a season by playing meaningless games?
It would seem that the answer is evident this season. The Islanders are charging toward their first playoff berth since 2007, and Okposo, who turned 25 last week, is at the center of the charge. After recording one goal and four assists in the first 20 games this season, Okposo is 3-14-17 in the last 25 games.
"I knew if we were going to have any success down the stretch this year, I had to play better," Okposo said after the Islanders' 5-4 shootout win over the Jets in Winnipeg on Saturday afternoon. "I had another slow start this season and I knew I needed to be better, be a bigger presence out there and be a leader."
Okposo led in a lot of ways Saturday. He made great passes to each of his linemates, Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey, for first-period goals. He infuriated the Jets with a high hit on Zach Bogosian in the second period and a bit of a slew-foot on Blake Wheeler in the third. Okposo also challenged Bogosian to a fight after the Jets defenseman rammed Nielsen into the boards from behind later in the second.
"That's why he wears an 'A.' He's a leader for us," Jack Capuano said. "He's going to battle for his teammates out there. He's always been a high-character guy for this team."
The Bailey-Nielsen-Okposo line has emerged as a legitimate second line behind John Tavares' top trio, with Nielsen relishing his role as a shut-down centerman and Okposo and Bailey working hard to get pucks and to maintain possession. The second goal Saturday was a virtuoso display of the two wings outworking the Jets down low to produce a goal, Bailey's 10th of the season.
"It's fun to play in games like these," said Okposo, who has played 316 games with the Isles but none in the postseason. "We know what it takes to win as a team now. It's been fun to be able to contribute."