New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz smirked a bit when I asked him about his top line led by star center Mathew Barzal last week.
The Islanders had just won Game 2 of their second-round series against the Boston Bruins where Barzal and his linemates, Jordan Eberle and Leo Komarov, put in their best showing of the postseason to date — though they couldn’t find their way on the scoresheet. For Barzal, he had not scored in the first eight games of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with just four assists — nearly half his production of the point-per-game savvy he often shows.
“They’ll find the back of the net,” Trotz guaranteed. “That’s what time and diligence will do for you… If you get frustrated by it, you’ll never find the back of the net and they’re not getting frustrated.”
He hit the nail on the head, as Barzal has come to life.
The 24-year-old star has two goals and an assist (three points) over his last two games against the Bruins, including what proved to be the game-tying assist and game-winning goal of Game 4 on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum to draw the Islanders even with Boston at two games apiece in the best-of-seven series.
He had to do so while continuing to draw a majority of the attention by a physical Bruins defense, which took things over the line on Saturday night when forward David Krejci speared Barzal in the groin after assisting on Kyle Palmieri’s game-tying goal in the second period.
An incident like that once derailed Barzal’s game, but Trotz has exalted the young center as a more mature player, and Game 4 proved up to such a billing as, in a 1-1 game, he batted home the game-winning goal with 6:57 left in regulation on the way to a 4-1 victory.
Barzal now has more points in his last two games than he had in his previous five games combined.
“It’s the playoffs. As much as I love to produce every night, it’s so tight out there and it just doesn’t come easy,” Barzal said. “Just more so when it’s not coming offensively, just making sure I’m not on the ice for any goals against… just playing sound hockey. A lot of shifts are just 50-50 and you have to grind it out… That’s what it comes down to, battling for the boys.”
It also comes down to working around the onus that the star has to be the main source of offense. But Barzal’s level-head during the postseason scoring slump did not compromise his mindset — or his game — even if outside speculation suggested that it had.
“I think you guys want to make it out to be that the player is feeling it… but throughout the playoffs, I’ve been happy with my compete level,” Barzal said. “This is the playoffs, it’s not going to be the same guy every night… I knew I had to step up and that’s all I’ve been trying to do.
“That’s more of a regular-season thing. Obviously, if we lose three straight in the playoffs and I haven’t produced, I’m hard on myself… This is just about winning hockey games whether you’re the guy who gets the winning goal or the guy who’s playing sound… it’s just about getting wins.”