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It was the Jordan Eberle show for Islanders

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PITTSBURGH — Jordan Eberle‘s only playoff appearance before this season was mostly forgettable.

He went 13 games without scoring a goal, was limited to just two assists, and became the postseason scapegoat for a dysfunctional organization (Edmonton) that was on the brink of falling apart for reasons that were (and still are) far bigger than him. The response that offseason, naturally, was to essentially give him away to the New York Islanders in a one-for-one deal for Ryan Strome

It has been a very different postseason experience for him this time around.

Eberle was one of the driving forces behind the Islanders’ stunning four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins that concluded with a 3-1 win on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After failing to score in all of his playoff games in 2016, Eberle has not only scored in every playoff game he has played so far in 2019, but he has scored some game-changing goals in the biggest possible moments.

Just look at the rundown of his goals so far:

  • In Game 1, he opened the scoring for the Islanders and set the tone for the series just 1:40 into the game.
  • In Game 2, it was the game-winning goal midway through the third period to help give the Islanders a commanding lead in the series.
  • In Game 3, it was a picture perfect snipe from a terrible angle that tied the game just one minute after the Penguins had taken an early lead.
  • In Game 4, it was exactly the same situation as his goal on an odd-man rush at the 2:09 mark of the first period came just a minute-and-a-half after the Penguins scored on the game’s first shift, erasing any momentum they may have been able to build.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In the four games the Islanders spent less than five minutes playing from behind due to their quick responses, and in two games it was goals from Eberle that erased those few deficits.

He has found a home on the Islanders’ top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, and in a series that featured the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the other side of the ice, it was the Islanders’ trio that dominated on the scoreboard.

“[Barzal] is finding me in areas where I am able to finish plays off,” said Eberle after Tuesday’s win, when asked what is going through his mind when the puck is on his stick right now.

“Since they put me, [Barzal], and [Lee] together the puck has been going in a lot more. I don’t know what we finished the season with, but it seemed like we scored every game. That is obviously huge and we want to continue playing that way. These games get tougher and tougher as you move forward, we have to be ready and realize that.”

They may not have scored in every game, but they definitely showed they could be a dangerous trio that could spark the team’s offense. Over the final 10 games of the regular season that trio outscored opponents by a 6-2 margin in more than 122 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, while also dominating the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

That domination has carried over to the playoffs.

In the four-game series against Pittsburgh the Eberle, Barzal, Lee line combined for four goals, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and controlled more than 60 percent of the scoring chance and high-danger chances when they were on the ice.

Other than perhaps the play of the two goalies (and especially Robin Lehner in the Islanders’ net), that line was probably the difference in the series.

“You start to get a lot of confidence before the playoffs begin, and you want to continue to play well,” said Eberle. “The biggest thing about my game, and [Barzal], and [Lee] is you want to have the coach trust you, and I think Barry does now with the way we have played defensively and able to break the puck out and go down and score. We are known for our defense and I think first and foremost that is where we want to be.”

The Islanders have a lot of questions to face this summer when it comes to pending unrestricted free agents, with Eberle and Lee being two of the biggest. If nothing else, they are putting together a pretty convincing argument that they are worth keeping around and paying because of the way they have played alongside the team’s new franchise player (Barzal).

They also don’t have to worry about that decision for (at least) a couple more weeks, thanks in large parts to Eberle’s goal-scoring binge.

He had a rather simple explanation for how all of it is happening for him

“Sometimes when you shoot the puck, it goes in.”

Because the puck keeps going in, the Islanders’ season will keep going on.

Related: Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

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.

Deep playoff push could mean big money for these Islanders

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Greed can sometimes be a good motivator in sports. So, for all we know, the lure of new contracts might just drive the New York Islanders during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Players in contract years made a significant impact in the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Robin Lehner carried over momentum from his outstanding regular season, making 41 saves. Jordan Eberle shook off bad memories of a rough postseason past with the Oilers to generate a goal and an assist. Brock Nelson had a goal, too.

As Game 2 nears on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Livestream), consider these players with extra motivation … including some who can’t even sign extensions yet.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

UFAs with much to gain or lose

Lehner, 27, expiring $1.5M cap hit: You won’t see a better example of a player taking full advantage of a “prove it” contract, and Lehner may only add to his earning power if he can nullify the Penguins’ firepower during Round 1.

Eberle, 28, expiring $6M cap hit: After scoring 25 goals and 59 points during his first Islanders season in 2017-18, Eberle’s numbers dropped quite a bit to 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Those are acceptable, but not impressive stats, maybe slightly influenced by playing in a very defensive-minded system. Few players can gain or lose as much money as Eberle might during this postseason, as a hot 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs might make a suitor (or the Islanders) forget about a so-so regular season.

Anders Lee, 28, expiring $3.75M cap hit: When Lee was a surprising name on top snipers lists, many attributed his success to merely playing with John Tavares. That criticism lost steam in 2018-19, as Lee scored 28 goals and 51 points. He’ll get a raise starting next season, it’s just a matter of by how much.

Brock Nelson, 27, expiring $4.25M cap hit: Nelson has generated 20+ goals in four of his last five seasons, and generated 19 during the one he fell short (in 2017-18). His 25 goals this past season fell just short of tying a career-high, while Nelson did indeed set a new career-best mark with 53 points, ranking third on team scoring. Both Nelson and Lee are big forwards who can score, so they can drum up some serious interest if the Islanders balk at their asking prices.

Valtteri Filppula, 35, expiring $2.75M cap hit: Filppula’s been a picky shooter for a long time, yet even by his standards, 2018-19 season was a one where he made his shots count. His 17 goals came with a 21.8 shooting percentage, so that puck luck and his age make Filppula a buyer beware. Another great value signing for the Isles this season, though.

Technically not as pressing, yet …

Mathew Barzal, 21, rookie contract ends after 2019-20: For obvious core players of Barzal’s ilk, you really have two contract years, as the Islanders could theoretically sign Barzal to an extension as early as July — if he wants to. Barzal probably would at least like to wait a while and see how much money RFA forwards such as Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Brayden Point rake in, so he may be more prone to let it ride.

Still, with the heartbreak the Islanders went through with John Tavares, maybe they’d push a little more for an early extension? It would be a big PR win, and there’s always the chance that Barzal would value the peace of mind of getting that out of the way.

A strong postseason would give him yet another strong talking point to ask for big dollars, whenever the two sides really hammer out a deal. Barzal’s off to a strong start, after all.

[Barzal already showed the poise of a veteran in Game 1]

Thomas Greiss, 33, $3.33M cap hit through 2019-20: No offense to Greiss, but the Islanders would prefer not to see him in net anytime soon.

Yet an offensive explosion from the Penguins, or an injury to Lehner could very well force Greiss into action. While he has term next season, Greiss has to be thinking about his future, at least to some extent.

After all, his chances of getting another contract changed dramatically over the last year. In 2017-18, Greiss suffered alongside Jaroslav Halak on an Islanders team that allowed the most goals in the NHL. One year later, Greiss posted nearly identical numbers to Lehner as the two combined to allow the fewest goals in the NHL.

A prolonged Islanders run could plausibly require contributions from both of their goalies after outstanding regular seasons, and that could also drive up Greiss’ earning power. It’s tough to imagine Greiss getting an extension being that he’s already 33, but who knows?

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Naturally, hockey players are motivated during any postseason, not just when they’re in contract years. Even so, it’s probably human nature to get that little extra push when your future is uncertain, and that thought could make the above Islanders even more exciting to watch than they already would be.

Islanders-Penguins Game 2 from Nassau Coliseum will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Livestream)

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.

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.

NBC

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Hero Heiskanen; Game 1 upsets (VIDEO)

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  • After falling behind 3-0, the Blue Jackets stunned the historically dominant Lightning in Game 1.
  • The Penguins forced Game 1 into overtime, but Josh Bailey and the Islanders wouldn’t be denied in front of raucous crowd at Nassau Coliseum.
  • Patrik Laine might have improved his confidence with a nice goal, but the Blues stayed hot in take a 1-0 series lead against the Jets.
  • After Vegas dominated last year’s Game 1, the Sharks returned the favor this time around in a nasty game that had nasty implications for Joe Pavelski‘s face.
  • Miro Heiskanen scores as the Stars beat the Predators in Nashville.

Blue Jackets 4, Lightning 3 (Columbus leads series 1-0)

Tampa Bay seemed like they were in business as usual mode during a 3-0 first period, possibly making Sergei Bobrovsky degrade into dreaded “Playoff Bob.” Bobrovsky didn’t allow another goal, however, as Columbus absolutely stunned the Lightning with four unanswered goals. Shocking, indeed.

Islanders 4, Penguins 3 [OT] (New York leads series 1-0)

Some would call it an upset. Some Islanders fans might be upset about that since their team had home-ice advantage. No Islanders fans should be upset about this spirited win. Pittsburgh possessed the puck, especially as the game went along, but the precious win goes to the plucky Islanders.

Blues 2, Jets 1 (St. Louis leads series 1-0)

St. Louis finished the season on the rise, while Winnipeg was struggling mightily, yet the Jets soared off to an early lead. Jordan Binnington and the Blues ultimately won after scoring two third-period goals and keeping Winnipeg’s high-powered offense in check.

Stars 3, Predators 2 (Dallas leads series 1-0)

Coming into this game, it was worthy to note that both OK-to-paltry offenses included three defensemen in their top six scorers. They followed that script, as five of the six goals were scored by blueliners, with Miro Heiskanen leading the way with two of those tallies. Mats Zuccarello may not have played much for Dallas during the regular season, but he scored the game-winner. Also following the script was a Nashville power play that couldn’t get the job done. (UPDATE: The NHL has taken away Heiskanen’s second goal and awarded it to Alex Radulov.)

Sharks 5, Golden Knights 3 (San Jose leads series 1-0)

Speaking of scripts, San Jose flipped it, going from big Game 1 losers against Vegas last year to lopsided winners this year. The score got closer down the stretch, but the Sharks got the better of the Golden Knights during a testy, hard-hitting affair. This series could end up having everything – great scoring, dynamic defensemen, and brawning battles – as long as Vegas can keep it competitive.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Miro Heiskanen

Um, how is this guy just 19 years old? OK, he looks that way literally speaking, but he plays like a veteran.

After an impressive 12-goal, 33-point season as a rookie, Heiskanen scored two goals to help Dallas win Game 1 in Nashville. The Predators’ defense is one of the most-hyped in the NHL, and with good reason (including Wednesday, as P.K. Subban and Roman Josi provided the goals), but Heiskanen ranks as a big reason why the Stars aren’t as far behind on defense as many might realize.

2. Jordan Eberle

Plenty of Islanders were “under water” possession-wise against the Penguins in their Game 1 win, so Eberle’s game was already solid in that he was one of the few who won the shot share battle against Pittsburgh.

But if that’s too boring for you, Eberle scored the Islanders’ first goal of the game, and he also managed an assist while firing five shots on goal overall. That’s a far cry from the zero goals he managed during the Oilers’ playoff run that likely prompted his trade to the Islanders.

3. Brent Burns

There were some other strong performances on Wednesday, including Josh Anderson (an assist, plus a shorthanded goal) and Jordan Binnington (24 out of 25 saves), but Burns loomed large over Game 1, and not just because he was the person who deflected a puck off of Joe Pavelski’s face for the Sharks’ first goal (counting as an assist for Burns).

Burns scored a goal, and alongside Erik Karlsson, he reminded us prognosticators that the Sharks don’t just have an edge on defense over the Golden Knights in the form of two former Norris winners, they also have an edge over everyone else.

And you could consider this something of a collective Sharks award, if that helps. Erik Karlsson also had two assists, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Evander Kane got to two points by way of scoring a goal and an assist apiece.

Highlights of the Night

Josh Bailey’s OT winner came after he shot in a rebound following an exceptional effort from exceptional Islanders forward Mathew Barzal:

Might as well throw in Blue Jackets – Lightning, too. The David Savard goal is probably the most mind-blowing, particularly since he deked around Victor Hedman to make it happen.

Factoid of the Night

The Lightning didn’t lose a game where they had a three-goal lead all season, and they never blew a three-goal lead in a playoff game in franchise history until the Blue Jackets’ rally.

Thursday’s schedule
Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, Game 1, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (live stream)
Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, Game 1, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA (live stream)
Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames, Game 1, 10 p.m. ET, NBCSN (live stream)

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.

Isles’ Mathew Barzal impresses All-Star teammates

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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.”

MORE:
NHL All-Star Skills 2019: Winners, funny moments, Gritty
NHL All-Star Game 2019: Metro wins final, Crosby lands MVP
All-Star MVP adds to Crosby’s ‘great memories’ of San Jose
Sharks soak in the love from fans during NHL All-Star Weekend

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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.