Mathew Barzal lives for big stage - and he's about to walk out onto the biggest one of his NHL career when he takes the ice for game one on Wednesday night against Pittsburgh.
This will be the first playoff experience for the second-year Islander, who's feeling all the requisite excitement, curiosity and nerves. For a player who wants to be in the spotlight, the opening curtain can't come soon enough.
"I'm excited for the most part, I love this atmosphere, I love the big stage," Barzal said. "Last year didn't have this emotion and this intensity, so I'm just happy to get that back, get this feeling back and it's going to be fun."
Barzal, the team's leading scorer in each of the past two seasons, isn't the only playoff rookie eager to see what all the fuss is about. Anthony Beauvillier will make his playoff debut in his third pro season, as will Devon Toews, the 25-year-old rookie defenseman. All three players have waited for this opportunity for their entire hockey lives.
"Every time you see someone raise the Cup it gives you goosebumps," Beauvillier said. "It's a special moment, you've been working hard your whole life to get to this point just having a taste of the playoffs. Every chance you get, you try to make the best out of it."
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While Wednesday marks the first NHL playoff game for Barzal, Beauvillier and Toews, all three have played on big stages at the junior and collegiate levels. Barzal was the playoff MVP as he captained the Seattle Thunderbirds to a WHL title in 2017, as well as a berth in the Memorial Cup. Beauvillier captained the Shawinigan Cataractes to the QMJHL Finals in 2016, while Toews played for the national championship in 2016 with the Quinnipiac Bobcats.
Barzal and Beauvillier have also played for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Those might not be the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it's still a pressure cooker.
"Just pick Barzy for one, he's played in the Memorial Cup and World Juniors, those are situations that when I was his age I never was in," Matt Martin said. "He's been on the big stage in the past and I have a feeling that he'll be excited and thrive in that situation."
To the best that they can, they are going to lean on those experiences, the memories of how crucial every play and decision can be. Barzal even watched a few highlights from his WHL title run to get in the playoff mood.
"It definitely brought back some feels and just got me excited," Barzal said. "Just that intensity, seeing it on everyone's face, there's nothing like the playoffs when it's all on the line, it brings out the best in everyone."
The Islanders do have playoff experience in their locker room. Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Valtteri Filppula, Tom Kuhnhackl and Andrew Ladd all have Stanley Cup rings and can be a resource for the young players. There's also Head Coach Barry Trotz, Associate Coach Lane Lambert and Director of Goaltending Mitch, who are all fresh off a Stanley Cup championship with Washington last season.
Trotz said the intensity and scrutiny of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are unmatched, but he's seen players with little-to-no playoff experience step up in big situations. He sees the value in having played some big games in junior and on the international stage, but Wednesday's series opener will reveal a lot.
"It's a different experience, but any of those experiences winning at the junior level or the college level or the AHL level, they are all great experiences," Trotz said. "They help you prepare for some of the things that happen during a playoff series… Some guys react in a positive way, some in a negative way. You get to find out everything about a player and your teammates in the playoffs."
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Beauvillier, for one, sounds like he's ready to embrace the increased intensity.
"Like Barry said all year, it's about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations," Beauvillier said. "You have to enjoy the experience, you have to enjoy the games and not be too nervous about it is the key to succeed in those games."
Barzal said a little bit of nerves can be a good thing, helping hone in the focus, but between he, Beauvillier and Toews, excitement reigns. All three have spent their lives watching the postseason, now they finally get to be a part of them.
"You can just tell even by listening to the announcers how much fun it is, how intense it is and by looking at the players and seeing how they attack each moment of the game," Toews said. "It's just really cool to see. It'll be fun to have those moments for myself."