SAN JOSE — Barry Trotz’s message to Mathew Barzal before he left for the 2019 NHL All-Star Game was simple.
“Take note of the top, top players, the absolute top players, how they interact with not only the fans, but other players and how prepared they are,” the New York Islanders head coach said earlier this week.
The 21-year-old Barzal was one of the youngest players to take part in All-Star Weekend and got to live out a dream playing with his idol, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Set up with Crosby and Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, the trio helped guide the Metropolitan Division to the All-Star title, first topping the Atlantic Division 7-4 before winning the $1M prize after a 10-5 victory over the Central Division in the final. Barzal played his part scoring twice and assisting on two others. The three of them combined to score eight of their team’s 17 goals.
The extra space provided by the 3-on-3 format allowed Barzal to show off his puck-handling abilities and utilize the speed that helped him finish third in Friday’s Fastest Skater event. Those talents also impressed his All-Star teammates, who see a lot of him on the other side of the ice as division foes.
“The way he holds onto the puck, the way he skates, 3-on-3, I don’t know if there is anyone better when it comes to holding onto it,” said Crosby, who earned MVP honors. “The way that he can just beat you 1-on-1, beat you with his speed, hold onto it. You watch him out there against the best, I don’t see anyone that really beats him in that category.
“Five-on-5, he’s able to do that, so 3-on-3 with all that ice, seeing that firsthand, I’ve seen that a lot and today was another example of that.”
The extra space and having those two dynamic forwards on the ice helped create tough situations for the Atlantic and Central Division teams. Crosby and Letang have played together for 13 seasons in Pittsburgh, so there was already a chemistry built in between the Penguins teammates. Barzal’s skills only strengthened the trio.
“You already have a chemistry going and we added a tremendous player with Mathew, who was just skating everywhere carrying the puck,” said Letang. “I was just staying back making sure there was nothing happening behind us.”
“Sid just kind of said, ‘Just grab it and get us up the ice and we’ll find a spot,’ so, it was kind of cool,” Barzal said. “Those guys would pass me the puck and them working to get open and I was just trying to find them.”
Barzal, last season’s Calder Trophy winner, leads the Islanders in points through 49 games with 14 goals and 31 assists. In his second NHL season he’s helped guide the team to a surprising start — one that sees them atop their division. He’ll now get to remember this weekend and enjoy a few days off as the team begins its bye week before a big matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nassau Coliseum on Friday.
“It’s obviously something I’m not going to forget,” Barzal said. “I’ve got my parents here this week, which is great. It’s just been really fun lately. Our Islander team’s been doing well and to come here and do well and get a chance to play with Sid and Letang and Claude [Giroux] and some new faces, it’s been a blast.”
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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.