Barzal hopes to build off All-Star weekend
Islanders’ budding superstar begins push toward first postseason
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player of his generation, believes no one is better with a puck on his stick than Mathew Barzal.
“I think watching him out there with the best, I don’t see anyone that beats him in that category,” said the two-time Hart Trophy winner and three-time Stanley Cup champion.
That’s just some of the praise the Islanders’ 21-year-old center received during an impressive NHL All-Star Weekend performance in San Jose, California.
Barzal, the reigning Calder Trophy winner as the 2017-18 NHL Rookie of the Year, has been even more potent this season, racking up 14 goals and 31 assists for a team-high 45 points through 49 games.
More importantly, Barzal’s unmatched vision on the ice and ability to hold on to the puck despite being stalked by several defenders has created offensive opportunities for his fellow teammates.
The Isles entered the break with eight players boasting at least 10 goals, including a team-high 18 by team captain Anders Lee.
Barzal’s play throughout the campaign has helped Islander fans get over their summer lament after former franchise player John Tavares defected to his Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency.
During the NHL’s four-division, round-robin All-Star Game last Saturday night, Barzal flashed the tools that have made him one of the league’s most impressive young stars.
He finished third overall in the Fastest Skater competition, then piled up three goals and three assists over two periods of play, including five points in the final, during the Metropolitan Division’s All-Star game victory.
“Three-on-three, I mean, I don’t know if there’s anyone better [than Barzal] at holding on to the puck,” Crosby gushed after taking home All-Star MVP honors, thanks to the pin-point passing of his young linemate.
“The game plan is to give it to Mathew, obviously,” added Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, who also shared the ice with Barzal on the Metro’s top line Sunday.
“We played against him in the season and he just controls the whole game on his skating ability and his skills.”
Barzal has been doing just that since he got his first big break with the Isles last season, accumulating 22 goals and 63 assists to grab top rookie honors, albeit for a team that finished out of playoff contention.
The Coquitlam, British Columbia, native may not have to sit out this year’s postseason as the Isles (29-15-5, 63 points) entered the All-Star break in first place in the Metro, three points in front of defending Stanley Cup champion Washington.
“The biggest thing for Mathew is the growth in terms of responsibility,” Isles head coach Barry Trotz told Newsday.
“Take note of the top, top players, how they interact not only with fans but with the other players and how prepared they are. Mathew has come a long way for [us]. He wants to be the best.”
Barzal was typically humble in accepting praise from his Metro teammates following last weekend’s festivities.
“I was literally laughing on the ice. It was almost just too easy,” Barzal said.
“[Sid’s] always open, and hand it off to him when you’re in trouble. It’s good. Him and Kris are just obviously two of the best players in the league. It was just so easy for me, and I had a blast being out there with them.”
Barzal hopes the nominal second half of the Isles’ season is a blast as well.
New York will return from the All-Star break and its bye week by hosting league-best Tampa Bay (76 points) at the renovated Nassau Coliseum on Friday night.
Isle Have Another: Barzal has racked up 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in his last 16 games. … Isles goalie Robin Lehner, who leads the NHL with a 2.02 goals-against average, is 11-1-1 in his last 13 starts. … After hosting the Lightning on Friday night, the Isles will be right back at it Saturday evening at the Coliseum against the Los Angeles Kings. New York will then embark on a two-game road trip, beginning Tuesday night in Boston and ending Thursday in New Jersey. The Islanders’ next game at Downtown’s Barclays Center will be Saturday, Feb. 9 vs. Colorado at 1 p.m.
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