For Mathew Barzal, winning the Western Hockey League Championship settled some unfinished business.
Last season, Barzal and the Seattle Thunderbirds made it all the way to the WHL Final, but fell in five games to the Brandon Wheat Kings. With one last chance to hoist the WHL crown, Barzal led the T-Birds to the promised land, downing the Regina Pats in six games.
"It's pretty special," Barzal said. "Losing last year in the finals and coming back this year and winning it all just feels so good. Every guy on that team has worked so hard and I'm proud of everybody, it's been a great ride so far and we're looking forward to the Memorial Cup."
The Islanders' 2015 first rounder keyed the T-Birds' playoff run, scoring 25 points (7G, 18A) in 16 games, en route to being named WHL Playoff MVP.
Barzal was as consistent as he was effective, recording a 15-game point streak while playing against the WHL's best. The most impressive part was that he did it all after being sidelined for Seattle's first-round sweep.
"I was just pretty dialed in," Barzal said. "Obviously it's the playoffs, you can't make mistakes, there's no room for error, so I just came prepared every night and even when I got in the series we played in, it was Everett, Kelowna and Regina - probably three of the top four teams in the whole entire league this year so they were all tough games and made you focus that much more."
Barzal's productivity in the playoffs was the next step after recording 79 points (10G, 69A) in 41 regular season games, winning the WHL's Western Conference Player of the Year Award and being the runner-up for the league-wide honor.
The gifted playmaker set a new career-high in assists (69) and nearly averaged two points per game (1.93). He felt like his overall game took a step forward this season.
"[I was] playing faster, stronger on the puck down low. Those two things for sure," Barzal said of his improvements. "When I was up with the Islanders, the game moves at such a fast pace in the NHL, I tried to play a more up-tempo game instead of always trying to slow it down."
Brazal said practicing and playing with the Islanders at the start of the season paid dividends when he returned to Seattle. In addition to playing a faster game and figuring out new ways to thread a pass, Barzal took leadership lessons with him from Brooklyn. The 19-year-old was a co-captain for the T-Birds this season and wore the "C" in the title-clinching game.
"I learned a little bit from John Tavares when I was down there, just watching how he leads, by example," Barzal said. "I tried to do that all year and just tried to lead by example and work hard."
Barzal is the latest Islanders prospect to play for the Memorial Cup after Michael Dal Colle and Mitchell Vande Sompel won in 2015 with the Oshawa Generals. Barzal and the Thunderbirds will play the winners of the OHL (Erie Otters), QMJHL (Saint John Sea Dogs) and the host Windsor Spitfires for the CHL title.
The biggest challenge is playing teams the Thunderbirds haven't seen before, but Barzal is confident that if Seattle plays their game, they'll be fine.
"It's a little tougher, you just have to go and play hockey and play your style and dictate the pace," he said. "I'm sure we'll watch some video, some power play, some PK video of every team and get a scouting report on certain things. At the end of the day you just have to play your team's game and try to dictate the pace as much as you can."
Regardless of how the tournament goes, Barzal is capping his junior career playing for the CHL's top prize, which is a privilege for any 19-year-old.
"It's pretty special. It's been a great four years," Barzal said. "Tough loss last year and never quite making that play to win it all, so it feels great, it feels unbelievable."