UNIONDALE, NY — Mathew Barzal skated back onto the ice after the New York Islanders‘ Game 4 win. Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum had been raucous all night, and Barzal gave the fans one more chance to roar as the game’s first star, pumping his fist and screaming “let’s go!” as he saluted them.
“It’s the biggest game for us so far,” he said after the 4-1 Islanders win against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night, which tied the East Division final. “We go down 3-1 in this series going back to TD Garden, and that’s a death sentence.”
It was Barzal who gave the Islanders life. At 13:03 of the third period, the puck bounced to him after Charlie Coyle blocked a point shot, and he whacked it out of the air to give New York the lead.
“A little bit of hand-eye. A little bit of luck. Obviously, the puck takes a weird skip. I don’t think many people knew where it was. Just trying to get it to the net as quick as I can,” he said.
Game 4 was a real emotional journey for Barzal. In nearly the same spot on the ice where he took his postgame victory lap, he crumpled to the ice early in the game, as Boston center David Krejci introduced his stick to Barzal’s most sensitive of areas — something that earned the veteran Bruin a $5,000 fine from the NHL on Sunday.
“I’m alright. I felt it was a little vicious,” said Barzal. “It doesn’t matter now.”
Boston fans focused on what led to Krejci’s cup-check on the Islanders star, which were a series of cross-checks Barzal delivered to the Bruins center in the defensive zone. Nefarious as they were, Barzal’s stick-work served as an example of the kind of game Barzal knows he needs play in the postseason. Opponents slow him down by any means necessary. He responds in kind.
“You just gotta grind it out when things aren’t going my way in the playoffs offensively. That’s what it comes down to. Just battling for the boys,” Barzal said.
“He’s battling through everything. Here’s our top guy. You know guys are going to take runs at him. They’re going to try and finish him. He keeps pushing forward. There’s no give in that kid,” said Islanders forward Casey Cizikas. “Not just offensively, but he was good in our own zone as well. You get rewarded when you play like that.”
Barzal is 24, playing in his fifth NHL season after the Islanders drafted him 16th overall in 2015. The draft is part of the lore of their series against the Bruins. Boston had three consecutive picks in that draft, from Nos. 13-15, selecting defenseman Jakub Zboril, winger Jake Debrusk and winger Zachary Senyshyn. Barzal, who has 252 points in 289 NHL regular-season games, was the next player selected.
He has 14 points in 17 career regular-season games against the Bruins, who are known for their stingy defense. He has three points in four games against Boston in this series, after tallying three points in six games against Pittsburgh in the previous round.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any specific reason,” said Barzal, when asked about this output against Boston. “If I had to pinpoint anything, it would be that when you play the Boston Bruins, you know that you have to bring your highest compete level or you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb out there. Maybe that’s it.”
For a veteran of five NHL seasons, Barzal has played a lot of postseason hockey. Game 4 was his 40th career playoff game, during which he has 31 points. He has seven points in 10 games this postseason, including goals in Games 3 and 4 against the Bruins.
Yet his playoff output has come under some scrutiny from fans and pundits. Before scoring a goal in Game 3 in Boston, Barzal had gone 15 postseason games without a goal. His points-per-60 minutes rate in the regular season is 2.32; it drops to 2.05 in the playoffs. His shooting percentage in the regular season is 11.6%, and it falls to 8.6% in the playoffs. Barzal still works his magic on the ice, dangling through defenses and trying to create chances in the offensive zone. It’s finishing those chances that’s proven challenging.
“Honestly, it’s the playoffs,” he said. “As much as I’d love to produce, every night is so tight out there. It just doesn’t come that easy. When it’s not coming that easily offensively that night, it’s just making sure that I’m not on the ice for any goals against. Just trying to get the puck out.”
Islanders coach Barry Trotz acknowledged that it’s hard out there for an offensive star in the playoffs. “I thought he was competing [in Game 4]. As I use the term, he was ‘fighting for his inches.’ He made some plays,” he said.
When Barzal gets going offensively, it gets the Islanders bench going, too.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. He’s working extremely hard. He’s not letting down. He’s not backing off,” said Cizikas. “It’s fun to watch. He’s an elite player. Superstar skill. When he’s going out there, we’re following right behind him.”
In other words, he’s leading by example. But that’s only part of leadership in the NHL, and Trotz admits that Barzal isn’t there yet as part of the Islanders’ leadership core.
“Matthew’s still growing. I wouldn’t totally put him in the veteran leadership group yet. But he’s learning slowly. At some point, he will be that guy,” said Trotz.
“You see it on other teams with young guys that come in. That’s why it’s important to have good leaders for the young guys. And then once they get into their mid to late 20s, they naturally take over that role. With young, talented guys like Barzy, you want them to learn the game, play the game and understand situational stuff. And I don’t just mean on the ice. Off the ice as well, with teammates and the importance of detail. Once they get that, they become the torch-bearers, going forward.”
For Barzal, grabbing that torch for the Islanders would mean something. He’s aware of the history of this franchise, of the 1980s dynasty and of the star players that have skated out on Coliseum ice to celebrate with the fans. Occasionally, he’s caught classic replays on the NHL Network, watching playoff heroes like Butch Goring lift the Stanley Cup.
“You see them with their beards, looking all old and ugly and beat up. You get chills when you see that stuff,” said Barzal. “You can tell how hard they worked.”