Kyle Okposo isn't an Olympian, but he ought to feel like one after tonight.
His overtime winner -- a beautiful snipe clanging off the upper right corner of the iron -- capped an impressive game by the New York Islanders against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The 3-2 final score was about half of what it could have been, the way these teams traded chances.
Indeed, by record this may have been a match of first- versus worst-place teams, but the Isles and Hawks did not play a worst-vs.-first game in what ended up as the Islanders' third consecutive win against a traditional power. The Hawks controlled play as one would expect in the first period, but the Isles took a narrow lead into the first intermission and then, suddenly, the teams took turns punching each other (without actually punching each other. Go figure.)
In some ways it was a coach's nightmare on the defensive side, but honestly the night was marked by furious forechecks and quick counterattacks. Sometimes when you have two teams with multiple dangerous forward lines -- on this night the Isles fourth line scored, the Ryan Strome-Brock Nelson third line constantly threatened, and the top six did what they do -- you just have a night of excitement requiring good goaltending.
How It All Went Down
To open scoring against the run of play, Casey Cizikas forced a turnover and interception at center ice, then took advantage of Brian Bickell's apparent inability to skate one leg in front of the other and took it on a breakaway. Somewhat rushed, Cizikas made a strong fake to the backhand before despositing a forehand around Corey Crawford.
The Isles entered the first intermission fairly lucky to be up 1-0, and you thought this would be a night of merely trying to weather the storm against an elite opponent.
Instead, the Islanders played some very good hockey in the second period. They generated many dangerous chances and even outshot the Hawks 14-13 in the middle frame. Eventually that work paid off with Thomas Vanek lurking at the top of the crease, free to place a backhand past Crawford via Okposo after Andrew MacDonald sent it to the net.
Evgeni Nabokov held up his end for the first half of the game, making enough sterling saves to allow them a 1-0 lead in the first period and a chance to extend their 2-0 lead in the second. Instead, the Blackhawks power play struck (thanks, Matt Carkner) -- despite good work early on by the Isles PK -- with Brent Seabrook finishing a very good cross-ice setup for a one-timer.
Then the Islanders allowed an equalizer early in the third, with otherwise good Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan combining to allow the Hawks free possession in and around Nabokov's crease.
The period from 2-0 and well past 2-2 was marked by a veritable litany of missed Islanders opportunities, including Michael Grabner on a breakaway (hooked, with no shot and no call), Brock Nelson on a breakaway (quick five-hole deke stopped), John Tavares with an open net on the doorstep (handcuffed by trying to choke up on Kyle Okposo's pass), and finally Kyle Okposo in the slot (robbed point blank by Crawford's glove after another Vanek backhand pass with two minutes to go). Foreshadowing: Okposo would take notes on Crawford's glove for next time.
Nelson was also a one-man icing ruiner, not only preventing whistles and D-zone draws but also winning possession of the would-be icings and feeding teammates out front.
Perhaps most guilty of all were the top line of Okposo, Vanek and John Tavares, each guilty of trying to make that one extra pass rather than firing it to the net and seeing what happens. At times the three are almost too skilled for their own good, leading them to try the trick pass or third give-and-go when a shot would do. (That said, had any of these opportunities connected, we'd be raving and not moping here.)
And of course, Okposo's winner came not on a pretty setup from Tavares but after Tavares made a move and shot, the rebound of which landed right on the stick of Okposo, who still needed absolute pinpoint accuracy to send the crowd back into the snow happy.
Hyperbole of the Night
Howe Rose: "That one will resonate throughout the hierarchy of Team USA, I am sure."
Probably not (have you read their deliberations?!), but hey it's entertainment, so we'll allow it.
Organic Hyperbole and Sincere Awesomeness of the Night
Coliseum crowd: "USA! USA! USA!"
Okposo: "Thanks a lot, guys ... you're giving me chills right now."
Okay, that chant is often obnoxious or misplaced, but not this time, not at all. This spontaneous burst from the crowd on Okposo's winner, and his sincere gratitude to the crowd which extended to all the messages of support he's received over the last few days, was pretty cool.
And that, that was a helluva shot.