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Isles’ Mathew Barzal on the Sedins, NHL adjustment and Calder race (PHT Q&A)

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Nineteen and three. That’s how many multi-point and five-point games, respectively, Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders has recorded this season.

The rookie forward hit No. 19 on Tuesday night with a two-goal, three-point effort during a 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Barzal’s 22nd goal of the season ended up being the game-winner. His 60th assist of the season made him the eighth rookie in NHL history to reach the mark.

It’s been a big deal for the 20-year-old Coquitlam, B.C. native. While his NHL season will come to an end on Saturday night, he’ll continue playing this spring after accepting an invite to represent what’s looking to be a stacked Canada squad at the World Championships in Denmark next month.

“When the best player in the world, at 20 years old, is going, Connor McDavid, it’s pretty easy for a guy like me, being 20, to say yes,” Barzal told Andrew Gross of Newsday this week.

A few weeks after the Worlds end, Barzal will be hopping on a plane to Vegas and picking up his 2018 Calder Trophy, which recognizes the NHL’s top rookie. The finalists won’t be announced until later this month, but it’s been clear that the Islanders forward will take home the honors.

We caught up with Barzal after an Islanders practice earlier this week.

Enjoy.

Q. Being a kid from outside of Vancouver, what did the Sedins mean to you as a young hockey player?

BARZAL: “It was a great. I watched them for 8-9 years and I could remember just being in awe of them cycling the puck and holding it for sometimes a minute, two minutes at a time. They were amazing to watch as a young guy and they were legends in the city.”

You got to participate in the Canucks’ SuperSkills event in 2011. What was it like being around Henrik and Daniel and their teammates?

“They stood out to be just how nice they were and how humble they were. Obviously, they were the two biggest superstars in Vancouver at the time, two most humble guys on the team. It’s such a statement to their character. It’s just kind of the people they are, I guess.”

Nearing the end of your first full season, what took you the longest to adjust to at the NHL level?

“I’d say the lifestyle, just being on your own more, being around older guys. I’m a younger guy, younger soul being around 16 year olds last year, going to being around 30 year olds with kids now. It was a little different at the start, but I love it and every guy is a great guy so they’ve made it easy on me.”

Lot of babysitting and dishes at the Seidenbergs?

“A little bit, yeah.”

Some floor hockey, too?

“Yeah, lot of hockey. Lately, not so much. I kind of just tell [the kids] to go upstairs and get lost, I’m tired today.”

Being in that Islanders room with guys like Seidenberg, Tavares, what are the biggest things you’ve learn off the ice from them?

“I’d say just how hard they work. The routine and just being maniacal about your body and that kind of stuff. Tavares is obsessed about getting better. Same with Seids. They’re so worried about their body and treating it well. That’s the biggest thing I take from it — just every single day you’ve got to take care of your body. You can’t have one good day and think that you’re all of a sudden feeling good. It’s literally eight months of the year that you have to dial in, and every single day they bring it.”

What was the biggest thing that surprised you being up here for a full season?

“The pace of play and how good some guys really are up here. You see them on TV and see Johnny and [Jordan Eberle] on TV growing up and these guys are unbelievable. But you get to see them every day in and out of practice, that kind of stuff. They’re pretty special players. When you go up against a guy like [Sidney] Crosby or [Claude] Giroux, that same thing happens.

“Another thing, maybe not really surprising, but it was just nice to see how the older guys treated a rookie like myself. You hear different things growing up how rookies get treated, but the whole time I’ve been here every guy’s just been really friendly to me and made me feel comfortable and poked me here and there. I love that stuff, so I would say that was a really nice surprise, just feeling like everyone’s got your back.”

Being sent down at the beginning of last year, what kind of motivation did that provide you for this season?

“I’m a pretty motivated guy to begin with so when I got sent back, I didn’t want to go down and just be too cool for a year since I had a little taste in the NHL. I went down and worked hard, had a good coach there [former NHLer Steve Konowalchuk], wasn’t thinking I was smarter or better than anything he said. I think that kind of mindset that the coaching staff and management here wanted me to go back with just really helped my progression last year.”

The rookie race was pretty exciting to watch for most of this season until Brock Boeser got hurt. When it was going back and forth, did you find yourself checking out what the other guys were doing every night?

“Oh yeah, every day. It’s kind of hard to ignore when it’s the TV the whole time and you’re getting Twitter mentions and Instagram [mentions]. It was fun. It was a great. Obviously, we don’t know what’s going to happen come June [Ed. note: I think we do.]. It was fun there when me and Brock [Boeser] had four or five lead changes in the matter of two weeks.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

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PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

The Buzzer: Another shutout for Jarry; Draisaitl puts Oilers back in first

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Three Stars

1. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big win for the Penguins on Friday night, and they owe this one to Jarry as he recorded his second consecutive shutout and stole the show in Phil Kessel‘s first visit back to Pittsburgh as a visiting player since the offseason trade. Jarry has been getting the bulk of the starts over the past couple of weeks and is making a pretty convincing case to keep getting them as he improved his season save percentage to .942 with Friday’s win. He has stopped all 61 shots he has faced over the past two games and has won six of his past seven appearances.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were able to jump back ahead of them for first place in the Pacific Division with their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Draisaitl was again one of the big impact players for the Oilers by factoring into both of the team’s goals. He opened the scoring in the first period by banking a shot in off of Kings defender Drew Doughty, then set up Alex Chiasson‘s game-winning goal just a few minutes later. With his two points he takes over sole possession of the league lead in the scoring race with 53 points, moving one point ahead of his teammate — and linemate — Connor McDavid, who now has 52 points. No other player in the league has more than 44 points right now.

3. Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals. Vrana continued his hot streak — and great season — on Friday with a pair of points, including the game-winning goal, in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. He now has at least one point in seven of his past nine games, including three multi-point games. His goal on Friday was already his 15th of the season and has him on pace for close to 40 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Shea Weber was great for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he also had a painful night by taking a puck right to the face. Read all about it here.
  • Alex DeBrincat scored for the second game in a row (his seventh goal of the season) as the Blackhawks were able to get a 2-1 shootout win in New Jersey. Corey Crawford was also great in net for the Blackhawks, stopping 29 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime three out of five shots in a five-round shootout.
  • Mikko Koskinen stopped 35 out of 36 shots for the Oilers in their win over the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Nate Thompson gives the Canadiens the lead with his game-winning goal against the Rangers.

When you record consecutive shutouts you probably have a lot of big saves on your individual highlight reel, and this was probably Jarry’s best of the night on Friday against the Coyotes. This helped protect what was at the time a one-goal lead.

The Blackhawks were 2-1 shootout winners in New Jersey and it was rookie Kirby Dach scoring the winning goal in the fifth round on this slick move.

Blooper of the Night

This could have been a problem for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as he nearly put the puck in his own net.

Factoids

  • The past two days have seen almost every game across the NHL be decided by just a single goal. The only two that have been decided by more than one goal were only decided by more because of late empty net goals. [NHL PR]
  • Claude Julien moved into a tie for sixth place on the Canadiens’ all-time coaching wins list on Friday night. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers’ power play is one of the big reasons they are in first place in the Pacific Division so far this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Arizona Coyotes 0
Montreal Canadiens 2, New York Rangers 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, New Jersey Devils 1 (SO)
Edmonton Oilers 2, Los Angeles Kings 1
Washington Capitals 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.