Islanders center Mathew Barzal shoots past Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brady...

Islanders center Mathew Barzal shoots past Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei to score a goal in the second period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series at UBS Arena on Saturday, April 27, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Mathew Barzal saved the Islanders’ season on Saturday with a subtle tip-in of a shot by Robert Bortuzzo 1:24 into double overtime to beat the Hurricanes, 3-2.

But what Barzal did earlier Saturday in Game 4 of the teams’ first-round playoff series at UBS Arena was an even bigger statement.

The first of his two goals was a world-class display of skill and a reminder that he is the team’s most dynamic player.

Also this: Whether or not the Islanders survive this series and whether or not a roster overhaul follows, Barzal is an essential part of their near future.

He had better be, with a contract that averages $9.15 million a year and runs through 2030-31.

Barzal had been quiet in this series, which Carolina still leads 3-1, when he had his signature moment.

The Hurricanes led 1-0. UBS Arena was not entirely full and giving off the vibe of a game in late November rather than late April.

Then it happened: Barzal got the puck from Adam Pelech around the center red line. He skated down the right side of the ice, shadowed by Carolina’s Brady Skjei.

Before reaching the goal line, he put on the brakes, circled back away from the net on his backhand, switched to his forehand while giving Skjei the hockey equivalent of an ankle-breaking basketball move, then fired the puck at the net.

Barzal beat Carolina goaltender Frederik Andersen to his glove side off the right post to tie it at 10:10 of the second period.

I asked Anders Lee if there are few players in the league who could have made that play. “There definitely are,” he said.

Then he added with a smile, “Barzy’s the one on our team that can do that.”

Bortuzzo, who has been in the league for 13 years and won a Stanley Cup with the Blues, has seen his share of elite offensive players. He said Barzal is one of them.

“There are a select few with edges like that that are able to turn inside on a guy and get good wood on a puck like that,” he said. “So he would be in a small class of guys that can turn on a dime like that and protect pucks and play hard. He’s obviously a super-talented and gifted player and huge for our group.”

Barzal has tested the patience of coaches at times with his style, one that also can make playing alongside him an adventure. Linemates often are not entirely sure where he is headed or what he has in mind. But defenders never are certain, either.

On days like Saturday, it is all worth it. Barzal was a force all afternoon.

That first goal was the highlight.

“It was great that he brought it to the net,” Lee said. “Love when he does that. He created space for himself. Held the puck for quite a bit and that ticker went off in his head that he brought it to the net. Just a great play by him, and a huge effort.”

Barzal credited Bo Horvat and Adam Pelech with getting the play started and credited Casey Cizikas with disrupting the goaltender in front.

Coach Patrick Roy agreed, saying, “If there’s no one in front of the net, that shot does not go in. You need traffic.”

OK, fine. That is the sort of thing hockey coaches and players say. But the rest of us can state the obvious — that the goal was vintage Barzal and a remarkable individual effort.

“I just tried to use my speed on the outside, turned up and didn’t really see anything,” Barzal said when I asked what he saw on the play. “Their ‘D’ played it really well. I didn’t have much space.

“It was a great screen by Zeeker. He kind of slid in front of Freddy’s eyes there and I tried to put a puck on net.”

Barzal added, “A lot goes into scoring in these playoffs. It’s not just an individual effort. It never is.”

That was more true of the game-winner, which began with Horvat’s forecheck and was initiated by Bortuzzo’s long blast.

But Barzal closed the deal. He wrestled with Skjei in front of the net and got a piece of the puck. That was that.

Back to Raleigh.


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