Mathew Barzal couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first goal of the first round.
In overtime, the star winger straddled the blue line on a zone entry, bounded down the right-wing, cut to Braden Holtby’s net, and slid a backhander into the back of the net to lift the New York Islanders to a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m just really happy to get the winner there,” Barzal said. “It feels good. We know the next one is going to be a tough one but for now, we’re going to enjoy it today.”
That just moments after Semyon Varlamov made two enormous saves on a Jakub Vrana breakaway that had the Capitals on the precipice of victory.
“That was a key save, I’m glad I had a chance to stop that one and Barzy scored right after,” Varlamov, who made 22 saves on the day, said. “I was so glad the game was over.”
Instead, the Islanders are up 3-0 in the best-of-seven series after Barzal’s heroics after he was sent in on Holtby by a perfectly-timed pass from Jordan Eberle, which had to be reviewed to see if it stayed onside.
“It was actually a great play by the linesman not to call that,” Barzal said. “Sometimes they get a little antsy… It was tight, I knew it was tight.”
For the 23-year-old, it’s arguably the biggest goal of his career to date and another example of his maturity after having a less-than-impactful showing during regulation.
“I think Mat wants to be that difference-maker. He got that opportunity and he capitalized on it,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s growing all the time as a player and these experiences are going to help him grow… He’s been accepting the challenges that I’ve given him.”
While slow starts have become customary for the Islanders throughout the early portions of the postseason, they quickly took control in Game 3.
While outshooting Washington 14-6 in the opening 20 minutes, the Islanders took the lead with 5:10 left in the frame when Adam Pelech sent a slap pass from just above the left circle toward the far post, where Anders Lee deflected it home.
“That was definitely a point of emphasis for us going into the game,” Pelech said. “I think we had a great first period, we defended hard.”
It was a deserved opener, and it came just seconds after Brock Nelson was denied on the doorstep by Holtby before clanging the rebound off the post.
When given an inch, though, the Capitals pounced. A Jordan Eberle slash on TJ Oshie sent Washington on the power play where Evgeny Kuznetsov sniped a wrister past Varlamov 40 seconds into the man-advantage and 5:50 into the second period.
It was the highlight of a strong Capitals push with desperation looming close behind a team that entered Sunday trailing 2-0 in the series. Aggressive Washington play prompted some loose moments from the Islanders, but they still were able to come up with chances as their even-strength play remained top-notch.
Much of the third period remained a tense deadlock with few Grade-A chances coming, though the Islanders made a late, unsuccessful push to nab a winner before the end of regulation.
One of the best chances of the period fell to Nelson, who received a set-up pass on an odd-man rush from Josh Bailey, but his one-timer was gobbled up by Holtby.
“The emphasis going into OT was to get our game going,” Lee said. “We started to roll over at times… they had some good pushes. When we got into overtime we focused on… playing our game the right way.”