Photo from nhl.com
The Islanders managed to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games with Mathew Barzal being a non-factor. He did not score a goal in the first round of the East Division series. He did get three points in the series by getting two assists in Game 3 and an assist in Game 4.
Barzal knew he had to play better if the Islanders plan on climbing on the top of the mountain as in winning the Stanley Cup. After all, he’s their best player. He’s the star that could make a difference. He had to do more than just do the little things. He needed to score goals.
He answered the challenge in the last two playoff games. After he scored the tying goal at 1 in the third period that the Islanders eventually lost 2-1 in overtime to the Boston Bruins in Game 3, he followed it up by scoring the tiebreaking goal that gave the Islanders a 4-1 victory Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum to even the second-round East Division series at 2. To enhance what he did in Game 4, he assisted on Kyle Palmieri’s game-tying goal in the second period after David Krejci scored a power-play goal in that period.
Make no mistake. The Islanders needed a game like this from their star. They could not put themselves on the brink of elimination heading to Game 5 Monday night at TD Garden. They needed their star to lead the way, and Barzal did.
You find out more about your best player in pressure situations. That’s how you judge them if they are really elite. Barzal made a case for himself that he can be trusted in a spot like last night. At 24 years old, there’s more to come for this young man.
It was a matter of time until he figured it out. There was no way he was going to struggle as he struggled in the first round. He’s too good of a player to be this bad. Hockey can be a funny game just like baseball where no results come despite a good effort.
Barzal offered things to come in Game 2 when he had several scoring chances just to be denied by Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. He managed an assist in that game.
WIth him scoring the game-tying goal in Game 3 and the tie-breaking goal in Game 4, the Islanders have to feel good about their chances to win this series against a rugged Bruins team that doesn’t give anyone an inch to score.
Barzal can be his own worst enemy at times. He tends to be more of a facilitator to a fault. He can be too cute with his passes. He works for a perfect play rather than just shooting the puck.
Either he had that come-to-Jesus moment through self-assessment about shooting the puck rather than wait for someone to make a play that he can set up or Islanders head coach Barry Trotz had a talk with him about being more aggressive with the puck. Watching him in the last three games, he’s been more assertive by shooting the puck.
When Scott Mayfield handed the puck to Barzal on a bounce play, the Islanders winger let it rip and he scored with 6:57 to go in the third period that gave them a 2-1 lead in Game 4. That’s the type of play he needs to be doing more often.
In Game 3, Barzal comes from the back of the net with the puck in an attempt to score. He kept at it after being denied a couple of times until he put it in with 5:26 to go in the third period. It brought life again at the Coliseum. Fans thought the Islanders wouldn’t be denied until Brad Marchand had other ideas in overtime.
On this Saturday night, the Islanders would make sure they were not going to waste Barzal’s big moment again. The defense formed a wall as the Bruins couldn’t generate many scoring chances. The Islanders took control of the game by being in the Bruins zone and putting the puck in Rask’s direction. They finished this time around.
This series turns into the best-of-three as we all expected. Both teams play a similar type of hockey, which is not giving each other an inch to score or skate. Both teams plan to be more physical.
The Bruins went out of their way to treat Barzal as target practice in the first period. It started with Curtis Lazar decking him on the ice that had Cal Clutterbuck confronting Lazar. It resulted in Matt Martin going out of his way to go after Jarred Tinordi.
The Bruins kept at it with him throughout the game.
But in the end, it was Barzal that got the last laugh by being the No. 1 star of the game for deciding the outcome. Krejci speared Barzal in the second period during a cross check-filled battle in the corner. Instead of getting a major penalty, Krejci received a two-minute minor.
The Bruins will keep at it with him because it’s what they do by playing goon hockey.
They better be aware that the last thing they need is seeing him get hot at the expense of their stupidity.
With what Barzal did the last two playoff games, there may not be stopping him now.