Sabres thoughts: Kyle Okposo knows Sunday may have been his final home game in Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Kyle Okposo was emotional after the Buffalo Sabres’ 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday night. As he slowly peeled off his equipment and looked around the room, the 35-year-old captain wondered whether it was the final time he would be doing that in this locker room. This is the Sabres’ final home game before the NHL trade deadline, and Okposo, in his eighth season with the Sabres, admitted it crossed his mind that it might have been his final home game with the franchise.

“I mean, yeah, it did,” Okposo said. “We’ll see what happens. You never know. But it was definitely in the back of my mind coming off the ice.”

Okposo is on a one-year contract. He came back to the Sabres in hopes of being the captain who could help the franchise end its league-record 12-year playoff drought. But 62 games into the season, the Sabres are 29-29-4, 10 points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

The NHL trade deadline is on Friday, and Okposo could be in the final year of his career. This might be the last chance he has to make a run at the Stanley Cup. He and his wife have four kids at home and have grown comfortable in Buffalo since he signed here in 2016, which is a factor, but if this is the final season of his career, why not make a run at it?

Okposo and general manager Kevyn Adams are on the same page about his future. Given what Okposo has given to this organization, Adams should defer to Okposo in regard to what comes next. He’s a popular player among his peers in the league. His words about the team will carry weight.

There should be a market for Okposo, too. His contract carries a $2.5 million cap hit, but he has 12 goals and nine assists in 58 games. He’s a steady defensive presence on Buffalo’s fourth line and could fill a role for a playoff team.

Sunday night, though, Okposo was still processing where his current team stands. The Sabres carried a 2-1 lead into the third period against the Jets but allowed two third-period goals to fall behind 3-1 before two empty-netters made the final score 5-2. The Sabres came into the game having won five of their last six games, but even with that impressive stretch of play, they dug themselves too deep a hole early in the season.

“It’s the thing you have to learn the steps you need to go through,” Okposo said. “You come into the year and you don’t start off well and it’s too hard to play catch up in this league. You win five or six and you’re no closer to the playoffs than when you started. That’s just the reality of this league. It’s a hard thing to grasp when you’re a young team. You can get a little bit of a false sense of security when you have a good year and you think, ‘We’re just going to keep progressing and play well and get points.’ But you have to earn those points early in the season and we obviously didn’t do enough of that.”

There’s reason to believe the Sabres have the makings of a contending team in their locker room. You see it in glimpses, like on Saturday when the Sabres beat the Golden Knights 7-2 with help from an Okposo goal. The push has come too late, though, and the franchise’s league-record playoff drought is going to extend to 13 seasons. However this week goes for Okposo, it’s unlikely he’ll be here to see the drought end. As he skated off the ice on Sunday, the arena had mostly emptied out after the Jets padded their lead with two empty-net goals. If this was the end for Okposo in Buffalo, it was unceremonious.

Quick hits

1. The Sabres played Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in both games this weekend. It’s not common in the NHL for goalies to play on back-to-back nights these days, but Luukkonen had a lighter workload in a 7-2 win over the Golden Knights on Saturday and has been playing lights out. The lack of rest may have caught up to him late in the game when both third-period goals are saves he’s been making lately. But Granato turning to Luukkonen on back-to-back nights is just the latest example of how confident this team is in Luukkonen. Granato said Luukkonen has come a long way in the last few years in terms of his conditioning and ability to take care of his body. That’s why he’s been able to play 19 of the team’s last 21 games including nine straight. The Sabres have two days off before they play the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, so Luukkonen should be ready to play again.

2. JJ Peterka ended a nine-game goal drought with his 20th goal of the season on Sunday. He’s been dealing with an illness that has limited him in recent games, but Peterka’s season continues to be one of the bright spots for the Sabres this season. Even playing without Jack Quinn for most of the season, Peterka has reached the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career. He’s third on the team in shots on goal per 60 and leads the team in rush attempts per 60. He’s continuing to establish himself as a core player for Buffalo.

3. Owen Power has two goals and three assists in the five games since he returned from injury. He had a goal and two assists against the Golden Knights on Saturday, and the Sabres have had 57 percent of the scoring chances when he’s been on the ice at five-on-five since he came back from injury. He still needs to become a more physically imposing player, but it’s clear that the time watching up top benefited him.

“He’s playing with more calm and more presence and he has looked very, very good, consistently good since his return,” Granato said. “I think he’s elevated. I don’t think he was bad before but he has absolutely elevated his game since coming back.”

4. Erik Johnson wasn’t in the lineup on Sunday, and Granato explained the decision by referencing the “unique time of year” the team is in with the NHL trade deadline approaching. After Chris Tanev and Ilya Lyubushkin were traded last week, Johnson is one of the better options remaining for teams looking for a right-handed defenseman. The 35-year-old hasn’t played since Tuesday, when he was on the ice for two goals against and got only 3:31 of ice time. He missed the next two games with what the team said was an illness, but that was no longer the explanation used Sunday. So Johnson may have played his final game in Buffalo.

(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)

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