Islanders fans had become used to seeing Mathew Barzal score. But through the first eight playoff games this spring, Barzal, the team’s points leader for each of the past four seasons, did not have a goal.
The Islanders’ speedy top center has started to break out in the team’s second-round series against Boston.
He broke a three-game pointless streak in Game 2 and finally scored in last Thursday’s overtime loss to the Bruins in Game 3.
Then in Saturday’s Game 4 — a swing game with the Islanders trailing the series two games to one — Barzal, 24, had a night the fans at Nassau Coliseum will long remember.
He outworked and outmaneuvered Boston’s Curtis Lazar before passing the puck to Kyle Palmieri for the tying goal in the second period, then notched the go-ahead tally in the third — knocking the puck past Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask baseball style. The Islanders won 4-1 to even the series ahead of Game 5 on Monday in Boston.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, he’s not backing down,” said Islanders forward Casey Cizikas, who scored an empty-net goal on Saturday. “He’s getting rewarded for that and it’s nice to see. He’s an elite player with superstar skills.”
This offensive flourish came after Barzal took a retaliatory slash below the belt from Boston’s David Krejci — whom he had cross-checked and who received a $5,000 fine Sunday — midway through the second period and needed time to recompose himself.
Asked if his frustration levels were rising without having scored until the past two games, Barzal said he had focused on how he could contribute in other ways.
Barzal’s line, with Jordan Eberle and Leo Komarov on the wings, has worked feverishly at both ends of the ice throughout the playoffs as the Islanders eliminated the East Division-winning Pittsburgh Penguins in six games to set up the Bruins matchup.
“As much as I’d love to produce every night, it’s so tight out there and sometimes it just doesn’t come that easy,” Barzal said. “When it’s not coming offensively that night, just making sure I’m not on the ice for any goals against or making that block or just trying to get the puck out. Just playing sound hockey.”
He now has five assists in 10 games this postseason. With the team captain Anders Lee absent from these playoffs because of a season-ending knee injury in March, Barzal has perhaps had to take on added responsibility, a role he has embraced.
Barzal’s heroics are not unexpected. A first-round pick by the Islanders in 2015, he quickly established himself as a playmaker and scorer in the N.H.L., winning the rookie of the year award in 2018.
Barzal initially shared the spotlight with former Islanders captain John Tavares. He has since worked to adapt to playing without Tavares after he signed with Toronto in 2018, and to Coach Barry Trotz’s style after he took over that season.
Clark Gillies, the Hall of Famer who won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders, praised Barzal’s skating ability but would like to see him shoot more often.
“He loves to get assists,” Gillies said. “Last time I checked, a rebound is an assist.”
With a Game 5 win, the Islanders have an opportunity to bring the series back to the Coliseum on Wednesday for a Game 6 clinching chance.
They have come from behind to snare each of their past four playoff wins, their longest such postseason run since 1993, the last time the Nassau Coliseum hosted the semifinals. The Islanders will leave the arena for a new home at Belmont Park next season.
“We’ve never been out of a series,” Barzal said. “It’s just about winning hockey games. I’m hard on myself, about getting wins and trying to help the team.”