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John Tavares, NHL impressed with Islanders' surprising first half

John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs against

John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 26, 2018. Credit: Getty Images/Claus Andersen

SAN JOSE, Calif. — They’re impressed.

Mathew Barzal had not heard that specifically before taking part in his first NHL All-Star media day here Thursday night because he had not run across many of his fellow stars. But by the time the weekend is over, he will know exactly what the rest of the league thinks about the Islanders.

They’re impressed.

No less an authority than Maple Leafs All-Star center John Tavares emphatically agrees with that. “They’re having a tremendous season. Obviously, it’s a complete 180 on the defensive side,” Tavares said while wearing a Leafs crest at an All-Star gathering for the first time. “Goaltending has been a big part of that, but just not giving up a whole lot defensively and it’s leading to a lot of success, a lot of wins.

“I know a lot of people there, a lot of the guys that I’m still very close with, have great friendships with. It’s great to see they’re doing well, but my focus obviously is on helping the Maple Leafs and controlling what I can control,” he said before feeling compelled to add, “But they’re having a very good season.”

Tavares, of course, is the reason the season is so surprising. When he left the Islanders as a free agent and signed with the Leafs on July 1, it was widely assumed that his former team was doomed to be among the lottery-chasers. Instead, heading into All-Star Weekend, the Islanders are one point better than Tavares’ current team (which is having a pretty good season).

Barzal said he is “a little nervous” as a first-time All-Star, getting to play on the same team with Sidney Crosby, one of his heroes. He added that one of the reasons he is here is that everyone around him in Brooklyn and Uniondale has done so well. He knows what an upset the hockey world considers the Islanders’ first half under coach Barry Trotz.

“I don’t know if I’m surprised, but it’s maybe a little bit different from what people pegged us as,” said Barzal, who moved up from the Islanders’ No. 2 center to No. 1 in the absence of Tavares. “I think we kind of like that. We weren’t pegged to do everything at the start of the year. So we had a lot of guys who wanted to prove something this year, a lot of guys getting a lot of opportunity, and we’re definitely making the most of it.”

They have not gone unnoticed. Devils All-Star Kyle Palmieri said, “It’s pretty incredible to see it. Obviously, it’s not the most fun to play against. They’re a tough team to score against. They have two goalies who give them a chance to win. I think the team as a whole has done a great job of buying into the way they need to play to keep the puck out of their own net. When they believe in that system, it’s tough to beat.”

NHL players credit Trotz, especially if they have played for him. “It’s awesome. I’m really happy for Trotzy,’’ Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said. “He deserves all the credit he’s getting, after last year and being able to change the Islanders and change the way they play. He has done a really great job.”

Seth Jones of the Blue Jackets, who are among the teams looking up at the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division standings, said, “Barry has had success everywhere he has been. He was with me in Nashville my first year. We went through some things together. He went to Washington and had success there and now he’s with the Islanders, having success. I’ve always thought he was a great coach in my heart and I’m happy for him.”

Aside from the impact of coaching, star players have noticed the impact of a change in address, too.

Said Jones, “Have you seen that building? Come on!”

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