SAN JOSE, Calif. — Just as swiftly as he skates up the ice, Mathew Barzal made himself comfortable while playing among all of the greatest current figures in hockey. The only time he looked uncomfortable was in the locker room after his team’s victory when he was asked to talk about his idol and linemate for the night, Sidney Crosby.
“He’s such a nice guy, such a good guy to learn from,” the Islanders center said after tying the hockey icon with a team-high five points in the Metropolitan Division’s 10-5 win over the Central Division in the final of the three-on-three tournament that constitutes the National Hockey League All-Star Game.
“It’s a little awkward here, with him right beside me . . . Just being the younger guy here and having the older guys here being so welcoming, I had a blast this week.”
In a week when it became clearer than ever that the league is in the midst of a wave of speed and youth, Barzal, last season’s Calder Trophy winner as the Rookie of the Year, showed that he has both qualities and is a huge part of the wave.
“Barzal makes it easy. He plays so well, he skates so well,” Crosby said after being named the Most Valuable Player in the tournament. Both he and Penguins teammate Kris Letang said Barzal’s pacing set the tone for the threesome that played together in two 20-minute games.
Fifteen seconds into his first All-Star appearance and only two days after saying he was “a little nervous” about being on the ice with players he had grown up trying to emulate, Barzal assisted on a goal by Crosby to start a 7-4 win over the Atlantic Division.
With his parents on hand and the whole hockey world paying attention, Barzal proved he belonged. He scored his first two All-Star goals in the final.
“I was literally laughing on the ice. It was too easy. He’s always open. Just hand it off to him,” Barzal, 21, said of Crosby. “Him and Kris are obviously two of the best players in the league. I had a blast playing with them.”
Speed and youth were the themes of an eventful All-Star Weekend that featured consistent booing of the Maple Leafs’ John Tavares, who turned down the Sharks as well as the Islanders during free agency last summer, and raucous cheering for U.S. Women’s Hockey gold medalist Kendall Coyne, who brought down the house when she competed in the Fastest Skater contest during the Skills Competition on Friday night.
“The game has changed a lot since I came into the league in ’05,” said Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, who made five saves in his half of the 20-minute win over Tavares’ Atlantic team, then shut out the Central on six stops in his 10-minute share of the championship round. “There’s more speed, more skill. Being a goalie right now is a bit more challenging, but it’s a fun challenge.”
Lundqvist won the only goalie-oriented part of the weekend, the Save Series contest in the Skills Competition on Friday night.
“I’d say it was a good weekend,” he said, smiling broadly.
It was a tough weekend for Tavares, who perhaps got a preview of his Feb. 28 Long Island return when he received catcalls from Sharks fans, upset that he had spurned them.
Tavares centered the Islanders’ first line and Barzal centered their second line last season, but on this night of stars, Barzal outshone his former teammate. Said Crosby, “Three-on-three, I don’t know if there’s anyone who is better.’’
Barzal will take a few All-Stars’ sticks (not Crosby’s; he had one of those already), some autographed jerseys and a ton of memories back to Long Island. He never will forget having the greatest player of his generation compliment and complement him.
“Sid said, ‘Grab it and get it up the ice, we’ll find a spot,’ ” Barzal said. “It was pretty cool.”