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Barzal provides bright spot to bleak season

Rookie blooms amid Islanders’ disastrous slide out of contention

March 21, 2018 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Despite their likely absence from the postseason for a second straight season, the struggling Islanders have to be enjoying the breakthrough emergence of rookie star Mathew Barzal. AP Photo by Kathy Willens
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The New York Islanders are doomed to suffer through a second straight non-playoff season.

They also might lose the best player in modern franchise history and their undisputed team leader to free agency this summer.

Add in the fact that the Brooklyn-based NHL franchise is ranked dead last in the league in home attendance, and there really isn’t much positive to say about this soon-to-be-completed 2017-18 campaign at Barclays Center.

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Except, of course, for Mathew Barzal.

The 20-year-old rookie sensation continued to provide a glimmer of hope that this wasn’t a lost season after all Tuesday night, collecting his 20th goal of the season and an assist as the Islanders dominated the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in front of 10,442 fans in Downtown Brooklyn.

Barzal, who dominated the WHL last season after getting a quick two-game look with the Isles before being demoted, has more than earned a permanent place in the New York locker room.

The Coquitlam, British Columbia native leads all NHL rookies with 75 points, almost 20 more than his nearest competitor.

He also is the first Islander to amass 20 goals in his first full season since teammate Anders Lee in 2013-14.

Barzal’s 55 assists are the most by any NHL first-year player since Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom completed a full 82-game slate with that figure back in 2007-08.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned with a guy like Nick Backstrom and to get 20 goals,” Barzal, the leading candidate for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s top rookie, admitted.

“Obviously that takes a lot of help from my teammates setting me up and making good plays,” he humbly added. “The whole 20-goals thing is kind of a team effort and I’m happy to get it.” 

The Isles are even happier that Barzal, selected 16th overall in the opening round of the 2015 NHL Draft, is firmly in their control for years to come, unlike team captain John Tavares, who could leave the only franchise he has ever known as a free agent this summer.

Barzal didn’t come into the league with monster expectations as Tavares did when he was selected first overall in 2009.

Instead, he built them on his own, accumulating 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) during the Seattle Thunderbirds’ drive to the WHL title last year while taking home postseason MVP honors.

Barzal shined for the Isles during this past preseason as well, notching a spot on the second line straight out of camp.

His consistent production throughout this disappointing campaign in Brooklyn has produced at least some hope that New York’s future can be brighter, especially if Tavares chooses to remain here.

“I felt like [Barzal] was at least a 60-point guy that was going to get an opportunity,” admitted Isles head coach Doug Weight after his team ended a three-game losing streak with just its second victory in the last 13 contests.

“I don’t think anybody would have thought he’d have over a point-a-game and play the way he’s playing,” Weight added. “He’s come on fast and hard.”

Barzal’s on-ice brilliance, which often draws gasps of awe from those who actually show up at Barclays Center, has impressed his teammates as well.

“Barzy is an incredible player and he’s going to have an incredible future,” said Anders Lee, who scored his team-high 36th goal off feeds from Barzal and Tavares Tuesday night.

“Every time he touches the puck something incredible happens.”

Barzal got the Isles’ stagnant offense started Tuesday as he deftly tipped a slap shot from defenseman Johnny Boychuk past Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray at 5:10 of the opening period.

The super rookie also got the puck in deep to Lee, a master in front of the net, for the tally that gave New York a 3-1 advantage at 5:41 of the third period.

Despite the Isles’ daunting 10-point deficit in the Eastern Conference wild-card race with only nine games to play, Barzal believes he and his teammates have plenty to play for down the stretch.

“The last month we’re obviously in a tough spot,” Barzal ceded. “It could be a frustrating last 10 games here, but winning is going to lift our spirits a little bit and hopefully we can make the best out of it.”

Regardless of whether they get back within striking distance of a playoff spot over these final few weeks, the Isles can take heart in knowing that the 2017-18 season provided them with the emergence of their next big star.

And a modest one as well.

“When you kind of creep around 15, 16 [goals], obviously 20 is a big number and a cool number,” Barzal said.

“It’s nice to get, but at the end of the day I’m trying to grow as a player and I’m not really worrying about the numbers.”

Barzal and the Isles will be back on the ice Thursday night here against Tampa Bay.

Isle Have Another: Another young Islander had a strong showing in Tuesday night’s win as 25-year-old goaltender Christopher Gibson, making just his seventh career start over the last two seasons, stopped 36 shots for his second win of the year. Gibson, who was pulled after yielding five goals on only 12 shots during last Thursday’s 7-3 loss to Washington, was happy to get back between the pipes and have a positive result. “You always want to bounce back when you have a tough game like that,” Gibson said. “I wasn’t happy at all with the game I played against Washington, so I just told myself that when I get that next chance, I have to be ready to go.”


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