Mathew Barzal admitted following the Islanders’ playoff-berth-securing win over the Panthers that it took him a few games to get his touch and feel for the puck back.
But with a four-month break from competitive play, who can blame the first-line center for not having all of his flare after a quick training camp and one exhibition game? Barzal said it felt like he forgot how hard it can be to get to the net and how much pressure some skaters can create one-on-one.
The 23-year-old Barzal chipped in a goal and two assists during the four-game series with the Florida Panthers, but wasn’t noticeably impactful until Game 4. And while the Islanders’ middle-six forwards headlined the series, Barzal believes that he and the rest of his line started to get back to what makes them good.
“I think we got in trouble when I was trying to do too much through the neutral zone,” Barzal said on a Zoom call following practice Monday. “Sometimes forget throughout the playoffs that other teams are watching a lot of video and finding tendencies in our game, too.
“Once we started to just keep it simple and started playing to each other’s strengths, and I trusted them a little bit more, giving [Anders Lee] pucks down low and making him work. His game down there, I think, it really opened our line up. So we’re just going to have to continue to do that.”
Two of Barzal’s three points in the Florida series came in Game 4, including a coast-to-coast goal to put the Islanders up 4-1 in the third. Head coach Barry Trotz wants to see the same Barzal he did in Game 4 compete throughout the entire best-of-seven series with the Washington Capitals.
“I’ll take his mindset that he had in Game 4,” Trotz said Monday. “He was using his speed, he wasn’t wasting energy trying to do everything himself. He was being efficient, he was being fast and he had the puck more and he was way more dangerous. I think as he’s learned that the playoffs there’s not much room, sometimes you have to give it up, you don’t have to do it yourself. I think he realizes that.”
The Islanders’ first line — Barzal, Lee and Jordan Eberle — combined for just three goals and three assists in the Panthers series, while the second line generated a majority of the team’s production.
However, Barzal wasn’t the only member of the first line to get back into the swing of things by Game 4. It’ll be up to that line to carry it over into the first round beginning Wednesday at 3 p.m.
“I think actually the production in the last series, numbers-wise, wasn’t quite there, until maybe the last game,” Barzal said. “I thought there were definitely chances where pucks sitting on the goal line, saves [Panthers goaltender Sergei] Bobrovsky got over to and made a wicked save on whether it was Leezy or myself — he robbed both of us a couple times.
“Most pucks go in, people are maybe thinking offensively we weren’t producing but that’s the way hockey goes sometimes.”