It may not be a long-term relationship since Jordan Eberle is an impending unrestricted free agent. But his steady production since being reunited with center Mathew Barzal will continue to be one of the key factors for the Islanders during their playoff run.
“You always have something to prove, whether you have a great season or a down season,” said captain Anders Lee, the third member of the Islanders’ top line. “That mentality can really fuel you and I think it’s really fueled Jordan. He’s really found himself.”
The Islanders host Game 2 of their first-round series with the Penguins on Friday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum after a 4-3 overtime win in Wednesday night’s Game 1. Eberle scored his first career NHL playoff goal at 1:40 of the first period and later assisted on Brock Nelson’s power-play goal to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead at 15:46 of the first period.
Eberle, in his second season with the Islanders and final season of a six-year, $36-million deal he signed with the Oilers, had 19 goals and 18 assists in 78 regular-season games. It was the fewest points he’s had over an 82-game schedule in his nine NHL seasons.
But he had six goals and one assist in 14 games after coach Barry Trotz put Eberle back on Barzal’s right wing for a 2-0 win over the Blue Jackets at the Coliseum on March 11.
“We like playing with each other,” Eberle said. “We play similar style games. We’re able to read off of each other. We seem to mesh.
“It’s been a whirlwind year,” Eberle added. “I didn’t have a great start to the year and, offensively, the puck didn’t go in as much as I wanted. The last 20 games, near the end of the season, I really turned it on and started to get some confidence. Any time the puck goes in the net you get that.”
Eberle was Barzal’s consistent linemate last season as Barzal won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie with 22 goals and 63 assists in 82 games while Eberle had 25 goals and 34 assists.
Some of Eberle’s drop-off can be attributed to the Islanders’ emphasis on defensive structure in their first season under Trotz. But, too often earlier in the season, Eberle played a tentative game on the perimeter, not heading to the crease on a regular basis.
That has been corrected, certainly since he’s been reunited with Barzal.
“It would have been nice to play more together but I’m happy we’re together now,” Barzal said. “There’s some chemistry there.”
Chemistry, or lack thereof, is actually why Trotz opted not to start the season with Eberle on Barzal’s wing. He started them together in training camp and in three preseason games. The sum total was no goals and two assists apiece. The regular season opened with Barzal between Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey and Eberle on Brock Nelson’s wing with Lee.
“It’s like a marriage,” Trotz said. “Sometimes it goes a little stale. Then, you get a little bit of a separate vacation and then the love is back.”
Barzal said he believes a significant factor in his on-ice chemistry with Eberle is the fact that the two have developed a strong friendship off the ice.
“I think Barzy has learned a lot from Ebs,” Lee said. “Jordan has had a lot of experiences, being the top guy early on [No. 1 overall pick in 2008], playing in this league at a young age. He has a lot to give to Barzy. He has really taken him under his wing and that’s a huge part of their chemistry and connection. They trust each other."
Whether Eberle is Barzal’s teammate and re-signs with the Islanders is a huge question mark.
But not one he’s thinking about right now.
“It’s not like I’m on the ice thinking about my contract,” Eberle said. “I don’t think about it at all, to be honest. You kind of just let things happen as they do. When you’re a kid, you dream about playing in the playoffs. That chance is here. The further you go as a team, the better it is for the individuals.”