Islanders’ Barzal Is Finding Scoring Touch at the Right Time

The New York Islanders have waited for years to see Mathew Barzal become a star. Since winning the Calder Trophy following the 2017-18 season, the bar was set high, and the hope was that the team had a star center to build a contender around. In his first few seasons, he showed flashes of brilliance and emerged as the team’s best young skater, helping them reach the Stanley Cup Semifinal in 2020 and 2021. During the 2021-22 season, the Islanders saw his limitations as he played without a shooter on his wing, leaving doubt about the ceiling of their star forward.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello was still confident in Barzal’s potential, even after a down year, and gave him an eight-year contract extension in the 2022 offseason. He put together a great year as a passer, distributing 37 assists but never found his scoring touch in a season cut short by an injury.

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Barzal returned to the lineup just in time for the First Round and is starting to click at the right time. Specifically, he’s finding his scoring touch, finding the back of the net in Game 2, and scoring the game-deciding goal in Game 5. He’s finally emerging as the elite goal scorer that the Islanders desperately need in the playoffs. But he’ll need to play at another level if the team hopes to complete the series comeback against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Barzal’s Willingness to Shoot

A criticism throughout Barzal’s career has been his inability to shoot the puck on the net. He has a great shot but often looks for the open skater in the offensive zone instead of firing the puck on the net, making him an exciting but frustrating player to watch oftentimes. He creates open ice for his linemates, but when he has a shooting lane and a chance to put the puck on goal, he passes on the opportunity. His career stats reflect that pass-first mentality he has developed, as Barzal only has 105 goals but 257 assists in seven seasons in the league.

Barzal found an open shot in Game 2 off a turnover on the rush and sniped the puck past Hurricanes goaltender Antti Raanta’s glove. The goal tied the game 2-2 and allowed the Islanders to head into the third period with momentum for the first time in the series. The Islanders ultimately lost the game 4-3 in overtime, but his goal showed how he can impact the game with his shot.

In Game 5, his goal ultimately was the difference between the Islanders winning and losing the game. Barzal stole the puck at the blue line and started up the rush to create an instant scoring opportunity. In a similar fashion to his Game 2 goal, he shot the puck past Raanta’s glove to give the Islanders a 3-1 lead, allowing them to secure a 3-2 victory and avoid elimination.

In previous years, Barzal would have likely passed the puck in those situations. Linemate Bo Horvat was open, and only one Hurricane skater was back to defend the play, creating a passing lane for the pass-first player. Instead, he generated an open shot by looking toward Horvat and quickly firing the puck past a surprised Raanta.

Antti Raanta Carolina Hurricanes
Antti Raanta, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Barzal is becoming a shooter when the Islanders need him to be. The Hurricanes defense isn’t providing scoring chances, and opportunities to find the back of the net have been a rarity. He can create scoring chances by himself, and with his shot, he is starting to carry the offense. He always had an accurate and effective shot, but now the Islanders are seeing it at full display, and it’s helping them win close games.

With Offense Struggling, Islanders Are Finding a Scorer

The Islanders have struggled offensively in the First Round, to put it lightly. They only have 14 goals in five games and have looked hapless in multiple games against the Hurricanes’ defense. In Game 1, the Islanders only scored one goal in the 2-1 defeat and only scored two goals in Game 4’s 5-2 loss. While they scored three goals in the recent game, they did so on only 22 shots in a game where the puck bounced in their favor.

The few scorers that have found the back of the net have kept the Islanders in this series. Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri are the only two skaters aside from Barzal that have two goals in this series, and they’ve provided the scoring presence to an otherwise struggling offense. With the Islanders struggling to find the back of the net, they can bail the team out. Specifically, Barzal is the skater that can fuel a series victory since he can find the back of the net without help. Even if the Hurricanes are playing well defensively, his skating ability can create open shots, and he can take advantage.

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Game 6, and Game 7, if necessary, will likely see minimal scoring chances for both teams in what has been a low-scoring series. However, the few opportunities that Barzal can create for himself can turn this series around and in the Islanders’ favor. The team saw the impact of Barzal’s goals in Game 2 and Game 5, making him an integral part of the upcoming games as well since a few big goals from him can lead to a series victory.

Barzal’s Passing & Skating Ability

Barzal’s recently impacted the series with his shot, but his speed skating and passing skill will be important in a series comeback. He opens up the ice with his speed and allows the other skaters to find open shots near the net. He makes his linemates better and often leads the offense with his playmaking ability. The Islanders will need that to be the case for the rest of the series against the Hurricanes, who have done a great job eliminating the top six.

Through five games, the skaters on Barzal’s line have been a disappointment. Bo Horvat, who scored 38 goals this season, and Anders Lee, who scored 28 goals, have combined for only two goals and an assist. The Hurricanes, specifically the Jordan Stall-led line, deserve a lot of credit for stepping up and eliminating the Islanders’ top line. But Horvat and Lee have failed to step up regardless of the situation.

Bo Horvat New York Islanders
Bo Horvat, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Horvat is starting to hit his stride in recent games, scoring the final goal in the 5-2 Game 4 loss and adding an assist in Game 5. Barzal can create open shots for him and allow him to emerge as an elite scorer in this series. Likewise, Lee has struggled to find scoring opportunities with the Hurricanes defending the slot and the net well, two areas the veteran forward thrives in. That said, if Lee’s linemates start finding open shots in the offensive zone, he’ll locate rebounds and scoring opportunities near the net. Barzal will continue to take advantage of open shots, but his playmaking ability and complete offensive production will be the difference in this series.

Where Barzal Must Improve

Barzal, along with the rest of the Islanders’ roster, must improve on the power play. The unit has been awful all season, scoring only 15.77 percent of opportunities, and it’s been even worse in the First Round, scoring only one goal through five games. Barzal has been the primary puck handler, but he needs to move the puck to the point and look for open shots or rebounds near the net. The Islanders have defensemen that can generate shots on the net from the blue line in Ryan Pulock and Noah Dobson, who can create chaos near the goal with their shooting.

Along with his offensive production, Barzal needs to step up defensively and turn defense into instant offense. The Islanders have struggled to carry the puck into the offensive zone and start up the attack, forcing them to rely on the chip and chase to establish an offensive zone presence. Stepping up with his puck handling and skating ability will go a long way for the offense.

Barzal is finding his rhythm at the right time and becoming one of the most valuable skaters on the Islanders in a tight series. Now, the Islanders need him to play at an elite level to win this series. They trail 3-2 to the Hurricanes, but with Barzal stepping up, this series is far from over.

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