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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Islanders' playoff run will help Mathew Barzal's maturation on the ice

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders skates

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final on September 13, 2020 in Edmonton. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

The Islanders usually are an afterthought on NBC’s NHL schedule, regarded as a ratings dud compared to more powerful national brands such as, well, the Rangers.

But this summer, the Peacocks have had no choice but to showcase the Islanders during a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals, a run that is on the brink on Tuesday night in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Perhaps the biggest byproduct of that showcase has been introducing a wider audience to one of the league’s most intriguing players, Mathew Barzal.

Islanders fans know plenty about him after three full seasons, including his Calder Trophy rookie year in 2017-18.

But even for them – and for Barzal himself – this long postseason stretch has been an education, one that could resonate for years to come, assuming the team keeps him under its contractual umbrella.

Barzal, 23, a restricted free agent to be, is the sort of player young fans latch onto – and whose replica jerseys they encourage their parents to buy for them – and who can be the face of a franchise.

But he has been a work in progress on the ice. The trick is harnessing his creativity and pointing it in the right directions, including the direction of the goal itself.

That is where these playoffs come in.

Barzal was a key figure in getting the Islanders to the conference finals, and through four games he was a key to the Lightning taking a 3-1 series lead, because they had held him to two assists.

The ups and downs come with the territory of being a marked man. But going through this only will make him better moving forward.

"Just being in these situations I think helps a player like myself, being a younger guy, being put into the fire a bit," Barzal said earlier in the conference finals.

"Along with the cuts and whatnot on my face, taking some hits and whatnot, [coach] Barry [Trotz] has been there to kind of keep me calm and make sure I’m always looking at the big picture and keeping my mindset focused on the goal.

"I think that’s a step I’ve taken this playoffs, just really focusing on worrying about the end result and not letting the little stuff get to me, and I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of that."

The reference to facial cuts primarily related to the one over his right eye after he caught Claude Giroux’s stick blade under his face shield in the second round against the Flyers.

At the time, Trotz joked that when all this is over, Barzal will look more like a hockey player, a crack that Barzal found amusing – and accurate.

But he primarily is paid to make plays, usually by setting them up and sometimes by finishing them.

Early in the series, Lightning coach Jon Cooper called him "an extremely dynamic" player.

"If there were fans [in the arena], he’s one of the guys who can make you inch up to the edge of your seat or stand up," Cooper said, "a really talented player that his best years are ahead of him."

On Monday, Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn said, "Obviously, he’s a world-class player, one of the bright young stars in the league. He’s got a lot of speed and he can cut on a dime, too."

Barzal made a defensive mistake on the Lightning’s third goal in Game 4 when he drifted outside Brayden Point and past the net while Point put in a rebound of his own shot.

Trotz has been working with Barzal on defensive commitment – as he has with the entire team – since his arrival in 2018. It all is part of the process, one that got the Islanders this far and will continue into next season, whenever that is.

"I think what you’re seeing is a young player who matures, and it’s what happens with those top players like a Mathew," Trotz said earlier in the series. "They know they have a bigger piece of the pie, if you will, and I think that lends to confidence.

"Usually on every team some of your top players grow into that role. I don’t think he’s there yet, but I think the process has started that he eventually with a few more years and more experience and all that, he’ll have a real big piece of the hockey team."

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