ST. LOUIS — Heading into a weekend in which he’s being honored as the best player on the Islanders and one of the best in the NHL, Mathew Barzal — on a stage surrounded by fans, under big, bright lights — offered his mea culpa.
Barry Trotz was right to bench him in the third period of the Islanders’ 4-2 win over the Rangers on Tuesday night, he said during the NHL’s media day at the Stifel Theatre adjacent to the Enterprise Center.
“As a young guy, I know an example needs to be set,” he said. “I was in the wrong.”
It might be the one dark spot in what is an otherwise fun-filled event, but Barzal, in his first comments since the benching, underlined his desire to win and his trust in Trotz, who after Tuesday night’s game said his first-line center was putting individual performance over the team.
An offensive dynamo, Barzal has had a series of defensive lapses in the last few weeks. Trotz finally had enough on Tuesday when, with the Islanders up 3-0, one of Barzal’s lapses caused a turnover and nearly led to a goal.
The Islanders wound up taking a 4-0 lead, gave up two power-play goals after a bad penalty (Scott Mayfield received a double-minor for spearing) and desperately held on.
Barzal actually had a good offensive night that game, notching assists on two of the goals.
“I’m a competitor and I always want to be on the ice,” he said. “At the end of the day, Barry knows what’s best for the team. We were up 3-0 and we were stressing getting pucks in deep and I had a bit of a mental lapse and then turned the puck over and it almost resulted in a goal against. We’ve had games this year where defensive errors have cost us games and he wasn’t going to let that happen again.”
The message undoubtedly was a strong one — one that indicates no one gets special treatment, even the resident All-Star — but it also highlights how the Islanders as a whole have at times struggled to play a complete game.
After a brutal stretch of seven games in 11 days, they are off until Feb. 1. The trade deadline is Feb. 24, and the Islanders have 15 games in that month — a good enough barometer on if they’ll truly be contenders late in the season. They sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, eight points behind the first-place Capitals.
With that on the horizon, Trotz has publicly stressed the need for unselfish play — something that came to a head after Tuesday night’s game, when he appeared uncharacteristically tense despite the victory.
“That was a good example, exactly,” Trotz said then when asked if Barzal was benched for not playing within the team framework. “One hundred percent.”
Barzal, for his part, said the incident is behind them. He doesn’t need to use it as extra motivation, he said, because he’s already plenty motivated.
“I was in the wrong for the play I made,” he said. “Barry’s got my best interests and the team’s best interests. He wants to win as bad as anyone and so do I. It’s over with now. We got the win and that’s really all that matters.”
And, perhaps as a further sign of his contrition, the 22-year-old tipped his cap to his 57-year-old coach.
“Barry is a smart guy,” Barzal said. “He’s been around a long time. He’s seen every kind of player, so I just try to listen to him and just try to get better as a player every day with him. We’re fortunate to have him.”