Mathew Barzal insists he isn’t doing anything differently, or better, in the last five games he’s played in this postseason than he did in the first eight. He hasn’t tweaked anything, he said. He hasn’t stepped up his effort in any particular way.
Certainly, though, the results have changed. Through the first eight games of the playoffs, the Islanders’ star center had no goals. In the last five, he’s had four — including the first of the game Sunday in the Islanders’ 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of their NHL semifinal series at Amalie Arena.
"I’d say it’s more so just I’m actually putting the puck in the net,’’ Barzal said of the difference in his recent production. "I think my chances throughout the whole season, or in the playoffs, are always there. It’s just a matter of beating the goalie. In the Pittsburgh series, when I didn’t score, [I was] still playing well, and playing the right way.
"This is the playoffs. So sometimes in some games we’ve played . . . I don’t need to get the fifth goal when we’re up 4-1, you know? So it’s just a matter of trying to be there for the boys when they need me and doing the right things.’’
The Islanders managed to win five of their first eight playoff games without a goal from Barzal, their No. 1 center and leading scorer in the regular season. But with him scoring now, they’ve won four in a row.
They needed him to break open a scoreless game that had been back-and-forth for the first period-and-a-half Sunday. He came off the bench on a line change, accepted a home run pass up the middle from Josh Bailey at the Tampa Bay blue line, curled up the right side, cut to the middle and slid a shot between the pads of Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 12:32 of the second period.
Ryan Pulock’s goal gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead at 5:36 of the third period before Tampa Bay got on the board with a six-on-four power-play goal by Brayden Point in the final minute of the game.
Barzal, who has four goals and six points in his last five playoff games, is creeping up the list of Islanders scorers. His 10 points (four goals, six assists) through 13 games is tied for fourth with Brock Nelson, who has six goals and four assists.
"Obviously, you want to come out and get the first one,’’ Barzal said. "I thought early on [the Lightning] definitely were pressing, [and] every time you’re on the ice with them, you know how much skill they have and puck possession.
"They’re such a nice team to watch. And when you’re playing against them, it sucks, just because . . . you’re chasing the puck and whatnot. But I thought for the most part, when we had a chance to make the right play, we did.’’