HAZELWOOD, Mo. — Kyle Okposo found a seam in the slot, took a Scott Wilson pass and sniped the top corner on Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford on Friday night in Chicago. It's the kind of play the Buffalo Sabres need to see a lot more of this year.
It was Okposo's first goal in six games — and first against a goalie in 13 games because his previous tally Nov. 24 against Edmonton came into an empty net.
"It's been a tough year in the goals and points department for me so I'm trying to build off that," Okposo said after practice Saturday in the suburban St. Louis Ice Zone. "I have to take advantage of my opportunities and I've had some but just haven't put them in the back of the net. That one definitely felt good to go in."
"He delivered a really precise shot and we all know what Kyle can do," said coach Phil Housley. "Hopefully this will continue and he can build confidence off that last game."
The Sabres have one of their biggest challenges of the season coming Sunday night in Scottrade Center against the St. Louis Blues, who are 20-8-2 and at least temporarily moved into a tie with Tampa Bay for first overall with Saturday's 6-1 waltz past the Red Wings in Detroit.
The Sabres started this Central Division trip with Tuesday's win at Colorado and were 3 1/2 minutes away from a regulation win Friday in Chicago before suffering a heartbreaking defeat in overtime, 3-2. Still, a win Sunday would represent five points of a possible six, and a big step forward for a team that hit Denver just 1-9-2 in its previous 12 games.
"To get five out of six points, we're going to have to do a lot of good things and play a really good hockey game," Okposo said. "Start small and go from there."
Okposo has started small this season with just four goals and eight assists but the Sabres hope it stands to reason that the puck will start going into the net for him soon. His shooting percentage of 6.5 percent is barely over half of last year's figure of 12.2, and it has been at least 10.9 percent in three of the last four years.
"I feel like I've had a lot of chances the last 15 games or so and haven't capitalized on them," said Okposo, who had 19 goals in 65 games last season. "So I just have to try to bear down in those areas and put the puck in the net."
One issue could be health, and not anything to do with the serious reaction to medication he had that ended last season. It's clear Okposo with dealing with some sort of hand issue and that could account for some of his scoring troubles.
"We're dealing with some stuff for sure," he said. "Health-wise, I'm good and that's what's important. But the grind of the season, you get nicked up and I definitely have some stuff going on."
Okposo has been skating with Wilson and Evan Rodrigues but was back to his spot with Benoit Pouliot and Ryan O'Reilly in practice Saturday. He's also getting time on the power play and, like several Sabres, still rueing the short-handed goal by Chicago's Tommy Wingels that tied Friday's game with 3:22 left in regulation.
"I just think there was a little bit of confusion. We can do a better job of having a plan and going out and excuting it," he said. "We gave up three opportunities on that power play and that can't happen. ... That's an area that's very easy to clean up."
The Sabres actually had six men on the ice in the seconds before the goal, with Jason Pominville trying to scoot off as the bench headed to the net.
"I didn't know we had six men on the ice until today," Okposo said. "But obviously there was a lof of miscommunication."
Before the Hawks SH goal the Sabres actually had 6 players on the ice. pic.twitter.com/iQRD8ylAi1
— Martin Biron (@martybiron43) December 9, 2017
The crushing defeat easily could have lingered into practice the next day but, to their credit, the Sabres pressed forward Saturday with a strong workout.
"I thought we did a really job executing, played fast out there and just skated," Okposo said. "We skated really well, moved our feet. I thought we did the right things out there. It was a lot of fun and that's how we've got to play. We have to move and work. I went up to a couple of guys after and told them I thought practice was good. We've got to bring some of that energy tomorrow."
Housley has routinely stopped practice at times this season to point out shoddy details. There were no such interruptions Saturday as the coach agreed with Okposo's assessment.
"I thought there was a lot of life, a lot of energy out there and really good puck movement," Housley said. "We've got to continue to work on that as far as the fundamentals go because it's part of our execution up ice."