Kyle Okposo chose an excellent occasion for his first NHL hat trick, and then some.
With the New York Islanders hosting the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in a battle for the Metropolitan Division lead, Okposo's first three goals keyed a comeback and created the game-winner in a 6-3 win at a boisterous Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders didn't let a potential deflater at the end of the second period do them in, continuing to push to erase an early deficit and do Bryan Trottier proud on his tribute night
Okposo would add a fourth goal for insurance before Michael Grabner picked up the empty net dessert. The Isles not only retained first place in the Metro, but added two more points to their lead as the All-Star Break nears.
First Period: Falling behind...
The Islanders opened in their typical fashion, pressing well after the fourth line set the tone with pressure and bodies flying in the offensive zone. Frans Nielsen and Anders Lee had two golden chances in front but were unable to open scoring -- but while the first line ended up taking the highlights, the Nielsen-Lee-Strome line was every bit as threatening all night long.
When Nick Spaling was called for a pretty weak hooking call seven minutes in, it was one of those occasions where you almost didn't want the power play to disrupt the flow of five-on-five pressure. The Islanders moved the puck well on that man advantage but didn't really threaten.
Then the Penguins got two quick power plays and converted on both, after Michael Grabner went to the box on a clear knee-trip and Cal Clutterbuck drew the short straw from a battle in front of the Penguins' net. Neither power play goal was due to typical penalty killing weakness, though.
On the first, Frans Nielsen and Ryan Strome led a shorthanded rush but lost the puck getting too cute inside the Penguins blueline. That enabled a 3-on-2 rush with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz -- not a good sign. Jaroslav Halak made the save on Kunitz's shot, but it caromed off Crosby's skate, off the post, and over the line.
On the second, the Pens kept the puck in on an attempted clear and set up a one-timer for newcomer David Perron, whose blast appeared to go in off a leg in front.
Continuing the special teams mismatch, the Isles whiffed on another power play but their top duo cut the lead in half 11 seconds after the penalty expired. John Tavares wiggled with some moves rushing down the slot and slipped a pass to Kyle Okposo, who couldn't get his stick on it but saw the puck go in off his skate.
Second Period: Tying it, but then not...
So the Isles entered the second period with a chance to take the game back, at least at even strength.
The refs helped in that regard, declining to give Kris Letang a penalty after he blatantly crosschecked Kyle Okposo into the boards from behind.
Frans Nielsen nearly tied it with a sizzling wrist shot that caught just enough of Christian Ehrhoff to clang off the crossbar and out of play.
As the game transitioned into a back-and-forth affair, both teams had their share of chances, forcing Halak to make multiple saves in tight and Marc-Andre Fleury to poke check and hang on to rebounds. Ryan Strome finally broke the seal after his line with Nielsen and Lee continued to generate pressure. Several shot attempts from in close and from the point ended when Strome corralled a rebound in the low slot and spun to place it past Fleury.
That seemed to make it a new game, but the Penguins got a killer with just four seconds left in the middle frame. Travis Hamonic was about to be called for taking down David Perron and was guilty of "checking out" a bit after he realized a call was forthcoming. Hamonic stopped moving his feet, the Pens moved the puck from the point to an outnumbered situation down low, and Crosby scored his second after a cross-crease pass from Paul Martin.
Third Period: Tying it, but then so much more...
So again, the Isles entered the next period down by a goal, and again they would push and push until they tied it.
This time, however, they would grab a lead too.
At 6:42, Okposo pounced on a rebound to backhand high over Fleury for his second goal of the night (and firs that actually went in off his stick).
At 11:51, mayhem.
The Coliseum erupted with a rain of hats as Okposo took a great pass in the slot from Josh Bailey -- his third assist of the night -- and made no mistake with a hard wrist shot to Fleury's stick side. As noted above, it was Okposo's first NHL hat trick.
But he wasn't done.
With the Penguins pushing for a tying goal, Steve Downie did a classic Steve Downie thing, retaliating on Brock Nelson with a slash to the leg and a crosscheck when there was no threat at goal. Rather than go conservative on the power play, Jack Capuano and Doug Weight deployed the usual four-forward, one-defenseman unit, and the Isles rewarded them.
After Johnny Boychuk fired a point shot that created chaos in front of the net, Okposo found the rebound and deposited it past Fleury for his first four-goal game in the NHL.
Michael Grabner added the goal that made the final look bad, with an empty-netter from center ice.
Quote(s) of the Night
"Well, sometimes you gotta sell it some. If you squeak long enough, you know they say the greasy wheel is, well whatever that expression is."
- Butch Goring, discussing Crosby's reputation for excessive complaining
"He was bigger in juniors than he was in the NHL. He was probably 240, and ohh he was menacing. He was a gentle giant to some degree, but you didn't want to make him mad, because we all know, when he got mad, he was dangerous."
- Bryan Trottier, recalling when he and a teammate in juniors (Swift Current) were instructed to "go run [Clarke] Gillies and wake him up." Gillies told Butch Goring before tonight that he still owes Trots for that one.
"We were discreet who we picked on. We liked to prank the rookies especially. But we only did the guys who could take a joke...we didn't do Billy Smith."
- Trottier, telling more stories during the first intermission
"There is almost a spring-like tension in the building right now."
- Howie Rose, after the Isles tied it at 2-2
And this, which came when Okposo still had three more goals to score:
Something Okposo does absolutely befuddles Fleury. It's unreal.— Keith (@KeithLHHockey) January 17, 2015
That was after a fluttering Kyle Okposo changeup from a bad angle made Fleury dance like there was a family of ants in his jock, reminiscent of some 2013 playoff goals. That was when it was still 2-1.
I dont' know what it is, but every time Okposo is on the ice, Fleury seems lost. Okposo buries a rebound, backhand high, tied up 3-3.— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) January 17, 2015
Guessing that Okposo would prefer a best-of-27 series against the Pens to playing four different postseason series.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) January 17, 2015
(This, mind you, was after he had scored two of his four goals.)