The Islanders got a win even before their first-round playoff series against the Hurricanes opens. Coach Lane Lambert said top-line playmaker Mathew Barzal will be back in the lineup for Game 1 at Carolina on Monday night after missing the final 23 games of the regular season with what was believed to be a knee injury.
“If we can add him back, I think we can bring our game to a whole other level,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “It’s great to see him out there. He’s moving well. He’s making plays like himself. It’s almost like acquiring another elite asset at the deadline.”
Barzal, injured on Feb. 18, has been skating on his own for nearly three weeks and rejoined his teammates on the ice on Friday at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow for the Islanders’ first playoff practice.
He immediately was inserted back into his usual spots: on top-line center Bo Horvat’s right wing along with Anders Lee and on the left half-wall on the Islanders’ first power-play unit.
Barzal admitted to some jitters on Thursday night once he knew he’d resume practicing with the team.
“It was exciting last night,” he said. “Honestly, I had the anxious nerves a little bit, I was just so excited to get back. I’ve felt pretty good now for a little while so I knew this day was going to come. But to have it actually here and be back with the boys and just out there, it just lifts my soul almost. It stinks being out and being by myself for so long and these guys were on the road. I love being on the road with the boys. It’s so uplifting mentally.”
He declined to go into specifics on his injury or whether the timeline for his recovery was longer than expected.
“Everyone heals differently,” said Barzal, who had 14 goals and 37 assists in 58 games.
“I felt good today. I’ve been feeling good for a little while now. I just wanted to be fully comfortable with me hopping back in a game. With two or three games left, maybe I could have tried. But the boys were playing well and I felt confident that we were going to get the job done. I’m so pumped they did and I’m just excited to be back.”
The Islanders went 14-7-2 without Barzal in the lineup but did not clinch an Eastern Conference wild-card spot until a 4-2 win over the Canadiens in Wednesday night’s regular-season finale at UBS Arena.
Still, Barzal’s absence was noticeable. Horvat, who had three goals and one assist in the six games he played with Barzal as a linemate, finished with four goals and eight assists in the 23 games without him.
The power play, 5-for-15 in Horvat’s first six games after he was acquired from the Canucks, finished the season in a 6-for-55 slump.
“His poise on the half-wall is going to be a nice touch,” Horvat said. “And hopefully we can get things going there.”