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How going back to junior helped Mathew Barzal become a dominant player

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Every hockey player wants to get to the NHL as fast as possible, but sometimes spending an extra year in junior or in the minors can make a huge difference.

Mathew Barzal played two games with the New York Islanders at the beginning of last season before being sent back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. There’s no doubt that Barzal would’ve wanted to spend the year in the NHL like fellow rookie Anthony Beauvillier did, but it didn’t end up happening.

Barzal went back to Seattle with the right attitude. He ended up working on his game and having a huge year for the Thunderbirds, his country and himself. He finished his junior campaign with 10 goals and 79 points in only 41 games. Barzal was an influential part of his team’s first ever WHL Championship, as he accumulated seven goals and 25 points in 16 playoff games. He also added two assists in three games at the 2017 Memorial Cup (Seattle went 0-3 in the tournament).

The Isles forward also served as an assistant captain for Team Canada at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. It was his second straight season on Canada’s roster. In his first year, he had three points in five games. Last year, he had an impressive eight points in seven tournament games. Unfortunately for Canada, they lost in the gold medal game to Team USA.

“I think (going back to junior) helped,” Barzal told PHT earlier this week. “I think it just let me play my game. I got to play lots of minutes, make a deep playoff run and win a championship. I had a good coach there in Seattle (Steve Konowalchuk) that kept me honest as a 19-year-old. I went to the World Juniors, I got a lot of good experience playing in big games. I think it was just a good development year.”

Through 46 games this season, the rookie has already amassed 16 goals and an impressive 47 points. We’ll never know if he would’ve been able to accomplish that had he not gone back to the WHL last season, but it certainly didn’t hinder his development.

“(Barzal’s) game has skyrocketed since late in October last year when he went back to junior,” head coach Doug Weight said. “He worked on the things he needed to work on. It’s refreshing to see when you have that tough meeting and you challenge him in those things and the things you’re supposed to say as a coach and a friend. He went back and he worked on it and it showed in his game in Seattle.

“He’s had a lot thrown at him and he’s just been terrific.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Isles have Beauvillier, who was developed in a different way. Barzal (15th overall) and Beauvillier (28th overall) were both selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Instead of going back to junior, Beauvillier stuck around in the NHL. He finished last season with a modest nine goals and 24 points in 66 games. This year, he seems to have hit a wall while Barzal has been flat-out dominant.

During the Islanders’ bye week earlier this month, they assigned Beauvillier to the minors where he played three games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (he scored two goals). The 20-year-old has eight goals and four assists in 35 games this season.

Unlike Barzal, Beauvillier just seems to be holding on for dear life in the NHL right now. That doesn’t mean he won’t develop into a solid player, but going back to junior and dominating for a year might have been better for his development (yes, hindsight is 20/20).

Most of the talk around the Islanders organization has been about John Tavares potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. Losing their captain would be devastating, but the fact that they’ve helped develop Barzal into a dominant player would lessen the blow if Tavares decides to leave.

Of course if he sticks around, the Islanders would have a formidable one-two punch down the middle for years to come.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.