Islanders Top Devils as Mat Barzal Continues to Grow

The New York Islanders had their way with the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night in a 4-1 victory. They are now 3-1-0 through four games.

Head coach Barry Trotz had his team firing on all cylinders, as they recorded 15 shots in the first period and claimed a 2-0 lead. Mat Barzal and Jordan Eberle got the party started at 4:43 and 19:39, respectively. Barzal was seemingly shot out of a cannon, rifling a puck top shelf while on the move against Devils goaltender Scott Wedgewood.

“I think for me it’s trying to be more assertive,” Barzal said in a postgame conference on MSG Network. “Try to bear down and let one go.”

Semyon Varlamov’s shutout streak came to an end in the second period. Nathan Bastian got the Devils on the board, making it a 2-1 game. In just over seven periods of hockey, Varlamov went the first 142:10 of the season without surrendering a goal. The rest of the game was smooth sailing for the Islanders netminder – he shut the door, securing the club’s third victory thus far.

Varlamov made 30 saves on 31 shots and has stopped 81 of 82 shots so far in three appearances in the 2020-21 season.

The power play went 2-for-3, something that doesn’t happen often for the Islanders. A wide shot by Noah Dobson fell on Eberle’s stick for his second goal of the game, and later Brock Nelson displayed soft hands with a beautiful deflection on a Nick Leddy slapshot, putting the Islanders up 4-1 in the third period. Dobson added two assists in the contest.

After a low-scoring affair against the Boston Bruins on Monday, a four-goal performance was a sight for sore eyes, with New York having only scored one goal in their past two games.

Barzal’s Evolution

Barzal had a solid three-point effort against the Devils on Thursday night with a goal and two assists. He eclipsed another milestone, recording his 16th three-point game, good for 10th overall in Islanders franchise history. The Islanders’ star center now has four points in four games for the 2020-21 season, but it’s not just his offense that that’s evidently better.

Barzal is evolving into more of a north-to-south type player. He’s putting in the work on his own end of the ice, and it’s starting to translate into scoring chances. In his past three seasons, the Isles center has averaged about 42 percent in face-off win percentage. This season, Barzal has upped his game to a 55.56 FO%.

“He’s worked on that,” said Trotz. “He’s getting stronger in all of those areas.”

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz comments on Barzal’s growth on MSG Network

It’s certainly helping the Islanders, and is evident in translation to Barzal’s offensive production. Winning more face-offs leads to more puck possession, something Barzal already does well. Having the ability to completely take over the game and control the puck is another step in the right direction towards stardom.

Known as one of the fastest players in the league, Barzal uses his skating ability to suffocate his opponents in the defensive end, forcing turnovers and driving the play to the opposite end of the ice.

In the offensive zone, Barzal is shooting more – a lot more – and it’s working. He recorded five shots on Thursday night and has 10 shots in four games. His shooting percentage is up to 20%, after hovering around 11.4% over three seasons. It’s still early in the year, but the increase in production is encouraging.

“As I said to him, with his skillset and the way he gets into areas and the way he can shoot the puck — and it doesn’t have to be in the perfect spot — he could be a 30-to-40-goal scorer with that mentality,” said Trotz.

Barzal acknowledged the fact that he had always been a pass-first type player. “I’m always trying to grow my game, I guess, but obviously, the last couple of years have been pass-first and whatnot,” Barzal said. “For me, it’s trying to be more assertive when I get to a situation that’s pass or shoot.”

Despite not wearing a letter on his sweater, Barzal’s teammates certainly know he’s the leader on the scoresheet. “When he’s going, he’s obviously our leader offensively,” said Brock Nelson. “One of the best players in the league offensively.”

At just 23 years old, Barzal is recognized as one of the best offensive players in the NHL, however, he knows he hasn’t hit his ceiling just yet. His early success in the 2020-21 season is encouraging, and Barzal looks to be evolving into one of the league’s best players, and not just offensively, but all-around. After signing his three-year deal, he’s looking to prove why the Islanders signed him to his first big-ticket contract, and why he deserves to be in the conversation with the league’s best players.

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