Peeling off his gear in the locker room at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum after a very satisfying 3-1 win over the Penguins that gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead in their Stanley Cup first-round playoff series Friday night, Mathew Barzal had to admit: Playoff hockey has been everything he dreamed.
“It is. Yeah, it is,’’ said Barzal, who had two assists Friday, including setting up Jordan Eberle’s go-ahead goal at 7:54 of the third period. Barzal, 21, who set up Josh Bailey’s winning goal in the Isles’ 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1, has three assists in his first two career playoff games.
“I just love the intensity out there,’’ Barzal said of his first NHL postseason experience. “Sometimes you miss that in the regular season — a Wednesday night game, who knows where, right? It’s sometimes tough to get up for. And being in the playoffs, every game’s so big and every play matters so much. I just love how focused our group is and just love like dialing into a game.’’
Barzal and his teammates were dialed into this one from the drop of the puck, and with the Penguins determined to match the Islanders’ physicality and exchange big body checks with them, play was feisty. Several scrums broke out, including one at the end of the game, when Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin clearly wanted a piece of the Islanders’ Scott Mayfield.
“I think both teams played pretty heavy tonight,’’ said Barzal, who was involved in much of the pushing and shoving all game. “That’s just playoff hockey. As the series goes on, it’s going to be like that. It might slow down a little bit and become more contact and a little bit more of a grind game. That’s all right with us. We’re OK playing any game.’’
Barzal himself got a double-minor penalty for roughing when he attacked Pittsburgh defenseman Marcus Pettersson after Anthony Beauvillier’s goal that tied the score at 1-1 at 13:25 of the second period.
Barzal was driving the net and had managed to get his stick on a feed from Beauvillier that Penguins goaltender Matt Murray saved. As Barzal’s momentum carried him to the corner, Beauvillier swept in the rebound and Pettersson took Barzal into the end boards. Barzal came up and cross-checked Pettersson, setting off a melee.
After seeing the replay, Barzal said he shouldn’t have hit Pettersson.
“It was just emotions of the game,’’ he said. “I probably overreacted a little bit. I saw the hit after. I thought I was in kind of a bad spot, but he let up, and it was actually a safe play by him.’’
Islanders coach Barry Trotz didn’t seem to mind all the skirmishes.
“We’re a real close team,’’ Trotz said. “They’ve got each other’s back, and they’ve grown together. I love the fact that this game is about emotion. It’s about having the emotion. You have all kinds, win-lose, you get different emotions during the game . . . It’s life. You know you’re alive out there.’’