EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Anders Lee shook his head in disbelief after being asked whether he had the patience of Mathew Barzal with the puck at age 21. Barry Trotz described himself as an “idiot” at that age. “God, to think what I was doing at 21,” said the New York Islanders head coach on Thursday.
To watch Barzal control the puck in high-pressure situations, you would think he was an experienced veteran with years under his belt. Instead, he’s a 21-year-old forward in his second full NHL season in the league who just experienced his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game.
And boy did he leave a mark.
It was Barzal’s play in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net in Game 1 Wednesday night that led to Josh Bailey’s overtime winner.
As Bailey’s chip out of the Islanders’ zone landed along the boards, Barzal and Jordan Eberle entered the Penguins’ zone on a 2-on-1 against Brian Dumoulin, with Zach Aston-Reese rushing to get back. Barzal had a good angle to take a shot from the circle to Matt Murray’s right. Instead, he cut to the slot, which ended with a diving Dumoulin sliding backward in a failed poke-check attempt. Aston-Reese was trying to pick up Eberle and reached him at the side of the net.
Time almost stood still as Barzal stopped on a dime in the slot. He had what opposing teams try to avoid giving up when defending him: time and space.
A deke and a backhand later, Barzal’s shot rang off the post and fell right to a trailing Bailey, who (after a brief review) sent the Nassau Coliseum crowd home happy.
“I kind over overstayed my stay in front there,” Barzal said of the game-winning goal. “I was just waiting for the right play.”
Scour the scouting reports on Barzal during his draft year and the words “poise” and “patience” appear frequently. Those aren’t traits he’s developed in his two seasons in the NHL, they were with him before he even reached the Islanders.
Thomas Hickey remembers Barzal’s first NHL training and the impression that was left. The off-the-charts skating ability wowed the Islanders veterans.
“You don’t have total respect for a guy coming out of junior yet, but I think we all learned pretty quick you don’t want to look silly,” he said.
[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Making opposing defensemen look silly has been a regular thing for Barzal, who has 40 goals and 107 assists in 166 NHL games. His patience and speed controlling the puck helps create scoring chances. So is there a strategic way to shut him down?
“With him, it’s more what you leave him than anything else because he’s got so many tools,” Hickey said. “Certainly a tough player to defend. You can see that with his cut backs, change of speed, agility. It’s special.”
Barzal’s edge work and ability to go east-to-west on the ice forces opponents to pay attention, and sometimes draws them in to create passing lanes and scoring opportunities for his Islanders teammates. As with all talented players, he thinks the game on a different level than his peers and his vision with the puck is one of his biggest assets.
Now battling against his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, in a playoff series, it was during NHL All-Star Weekend in January that Barzal got to play with the Penguins captain during the 3-on-3 tournament while representing the Metropolitan Division. After the trio helped the division win the $1M prize, the Islanders forward received plenty of praise from one of the world’s best.
“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,” Crosby said. “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.
Outside of an All-Star Game environment, Eberle and Lee have meshed well on a line with Barzal, after the pair spent part of the season with Brock Nelson in the middle. Trotz reunited the line last month, and Eberle or Lee have become accustomed to playing with the dynamic Barzal.
“There’s definitely a difference between playing with him than there is playing with Brock [Nelson],” Eberle said. “But I played with Barzy all last season, we had a ton of success, and I know how to play with him. I think we play similar games and we think the game similar, that it makes it easy for us. A lot of times he’s doing things that I would be doing and thinking about doing and he’s feeling the same way about my game. It’s just easy to read off each other when you’re on the same wavelength.”
“Thankfully, I think our chemistry’s kind of hit pretty quickly,” Lee said. “Ever since we got put together, Ebs and I and Barzy have done pretty well. The adjustment wasn’t really much at all. He’s so dynamic in the way he creates space for not only himself, but for others, the way he carries the puck up the ice, and sees the ice. It’s really important to feed off each other and make quick plays because he can make those. … He knows when I’m down low, I know when he’s up top, using each other’s strengths has been good for us.”
The scary thing for the other 30 NHL teams and an encouraging sign for the Islanders is that Barzal is still improving. In his first season working day to day with him, Trotz has noticed how responsive his young forward is to being taught, and he possesses the desire to reach the elite level that Crosby achieved years ago.
“He’s maturing all the time, and you want players to mature as players, but as importantly you want them to mature as good pros,” Trotz said. “He’s surrounded by some great people, and he’s learning from great people. There’s some things you want to get out of his ‘junior game’ so he can be more effective at the NHL level.
“He listens and is very coachable. He’s just like all good players, there’s a stubbornness to their game because they’ve had success and sometimes it’s hard to get away from. He wants to be one of the top players in the National Hockey League and hopefully if he stays on the right path as he has he’ll continue to grow and you’ll see him be a player that [he’s capable of being].”
Two years into his professional career, nothing has surprised Barzal’s teammates about their young star. They know he’s going to create scoring chances. They know his speed will turn a mundane situation into a quick attack transition. They know when the moment is big, there will be no nerves getting in his way, as we saw Wednesday night. They know that irrational decisions with the puck is not part of his hockey makeup.
“It’s what made him good at every level he’s played at,” said Hickey. “If you lose that poise, that ability to really show no fear with it, then you take away his biggest asset. That’s what’s got him here. A lot of guys lose a bit of that their first couple of years pro. Thankfully he didn’t lose that because he wouldn’t be the same player.”
MORE: Isles’ Josh Bailey finds redemption in Game 1 vs. Penguins
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.