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Mathew Barzal impresses in playoff debut for Islanders

Islanders center Mathew Barzal gets after the puck

Islanders center Mathew Barzal gets after the puck during the first period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Penguins on Wednesday at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Islanders are living in the moment, what with an important playoff task at hand and important free-agent matters to come this summer.

But a subplot with longer-range implications also will play out in the coming days and perhaps weeks: How will young Mathew Barzal, their most dynamic player, take to postseason pressure?

He is 21 and the sort of foundational piece a team might want to build around for many springs to come.

The Penguins have young talent, too, but it was difficult not to notice in Game 1 of the teams’ first-round playoff series that their biggest names are closer to their playoff expiration dates than to their playoff debuts.

The visitors did not dress anyone as young as Barzal on Wednesday night, and Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel all were born in a 14-month stretch in 1986 and ’87.

So there might be a generational torch-passing going on here. But back to Barzal: So far, so good.

On a night when Sid “The Kid” was unusually quiet, the Islanders’ kid played his first playoff game and made many things happen, including the most important thing.

Not quite five minutes into overtime, he skated down the left wing, faked the Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin off his skates, did a stutter step — stutter slide? — in the slot, then took a backhand shot that caromed off the left post. Josh Bailey knocked in the loose puck, and the Islanders won, 4-3.

Afterward, Barzal said the experience was everything he had hoped and dreamed.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” he said. “It was up and down. It was exciting. The fans were into it. That’s playoff hockey. That was completely different from a regular-season game. It was awesome.”

He still was gushing after practice on Thursday, saying, “Seeing the orange [shirts draped over the seats] out there pregame when no one was in the rink, as a young guy, that’s pretty exciting.”

Barzal, the reigning NHL Calder Trophy winner as its top rookie, has a style that is both intriguing and challenging. Doug Weight sought to shape it last season, and Barry Trotz has done the same this season.

Barzal has a remarkable ability to control the puck while skating past defenders in long, creative loops, but that sometimes results in errant passes or giveaways, especially on a team short on elite-level snipers.

Trotz has made many public comments both lauding Barzal’s talent and talking about things he has to learn. He has encouraged him to shoot more and skate more north-to-south than to points unknown, among other things.

On Tuesday, Trotz said, “He always thinks of himself as a playmaker. I just said, ‘You have to make sure you have a curveball and a fastball and use both of them and do that a little more,’ and he has. He’s a good, young dynamic player who’s going to be a big part of our success moving forward.”

After Game 1, Trotz said, “Barzy in particular, I thought he set the tone. He was managing the puck well. He was skating. He was dangerous.”

On Thursday, Trotz said, “Barzy’s a terrific young talent. He’s still growing as a human being. He’s 21 years old. God, I think what I was doing at 21, what an idiot I was back then. But he’s maturing all the time.”

Trotz said he has tried to delete habits from Barzal’s “junior game” that do not translate to the NHL. He called Barzal coachable but added, “He’s just like all good players. There’s a stubbornness to their game because they’ve had success.”

So it goes with No. 13. He’s never boring. And in his playoff debut, he was skating and he was dangerous, just as the Islanders want and need him to be.  





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