Patience, poise of Islanders’ Barzal leaves opponents guessing

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

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When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

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.