The Islanders got a split of the first two games of their first-round playoff series against the Penguins without any contribution from their best and highest-paid player, Mathew Barzal.
But as the series shifts to Nassau Coliseum for Games 3 and 4, Islanders coach Barry Trotz promised that Barzal has another gear he’ll be able to get to as his team looks to take control of the best-of-seven series.
"Absolutely. Absolutely, he does,’’ Trotz said after a 2-1 loss in Game 2 on Tuesday night. "We're going to need for him to do something. And it's hard, sometimes, because Mathew cares. He tries to do it by himself sometimes, and the Penguins are doing a good job.’’
That the Islanders managed to win one of the first two games in Pittsburgh – with Barzal getting no points in the games – was huge, Trotz said.
"If you don't get the split in the best-of-seven, you've got to win four of five games. That's really tough,’’ he said. "So getting a split was crucial. And I don't think anybody would come in here and say, 'Hey, we're gonna win both.' I think you go with the plan to win both, but it doesn't happen a lot ... it's gonna be a dogfight. It's gonna be a team that stays with it. And the first team to get that fourth victory is going to move on.’’
Barzal, a restricted free agent last offseason, signed a three-year, $21 million contract following a brief training camp holdout, then led the Islanders in scoring in the regular season with 17 goals and 28 assists in 55 games. But in Game 1 on Sunday, Barzal managed just one shot on goal in 20 minutes and 22 seconds of ice time in the Islanders' 4-3 overtime victory.
He was much more visible in his 18:16 of ice time in Game 2, when he seemed to find more room to skate in the second half of the game, and had three shots on goal. Trotz believes his showing in Game 2 was an indicator that the 23-year-old center is going to break out eventually.
"He had some shifts [in Game 2] where he almost broke loose,’’ Trotz said.
The Islanders, who fell behind 2-0 in the first period, had seemed to get some momentum from a couple of solid penalty kills in the second period and had finally gotten on the board with Josh Bailey’s goal at 14:44. Slowly, they began to generate some sustained pressure in the offensive zone and some dangerous chances in the latter part of that period.
Barzal came close to scoring on a wraparound shot with 1:29 left in the period that was stopped by Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry, and then he had a near-breakaway at 7:50 of the third period, when linemate Leo Komarov appeared to spring Barzal with a pass up the middle behind Pittsburgh’s Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen recovered, though, and did just enough to prevent Barzal from getting more than a weak backhander off against Jarry, who made 37 saves.
"The number one thing with him, is when he's skating, you can forget about the hands and all that,’’ Trotz said of Barzal. "If he's skating in straight lines, and getting to pucks, and playing that give-and-go game, he is extremely dynamic. When he tries to use his hands too much, or play a slow-down game, I don't think he's quite as effective. So, we’ve just got to get him play in straight lines. He did that more often, I thought, today. So he was a little more dangerous.’’