For Mathew Barzal and fellow playoff rookies Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech and Devon Toews, Wednesday night's matchup at NYCB Live Nassau Coliseum was a crash course in playoff hockey.
The game had all of the ingredients of an exciting playoff tilt; high-caliber scoring chances, chippy play, a tumultuous atmosphere, disallowed goals, and overtime. The Isles 4-3 win was telling of the resilient group and a thorough test for the young guys to get their feet wet.
"Absolutely," Mathew Barzal said of his first playoff game living up to his expectations. "Ups and downs during the game. Got us to stay focused the whole way. Can't let anything get to you. Disallowed goals, good battles on the ice and overtime. That's playoff hockey right there."
Barzal, Pelech and Toews all recorded assists in Game 1, while Beauvillier played an integral role in another goal. The points came on top of facing a star-powered lineup with multiple Stanley Cup winners, but in the face of an experienced team, the Isles first-timers held their own.
"It's part of their experience," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "It's going to help them from the standpoint of confidence. Any time you can contribute anything in an environment on a big stage it feeds your confidence."
Video: PIT@NYI, Gm1: Bailey wins it in OT for Islanders
While the game itself was a back-and-forth battle of momentum swings, Barzal, a self-professed lover of high stakes, rose to the occasion when the game was sent into overtime.
The 21-year-old centerman drove to the net forcing the Penguins blue line to collapse and forced goaltender Matt Murray to abandon his crease. Barzal's backhander clanked off the post, but fortunately, the backdoor wide open for Josh Bailey to seal the win. Trotz said Barzal "set the tone" in his first playoff game.
"I know Barzy in particular was really enjoying the moment," Trotz said. "He was enjoying the fact that he was lining up sometimes against Sid or Makin in a playoff game. That's something for him. He likes the big moment, which all top players do. They don't get small by the moment, they get big. I thought Barzy was big in the moment and obviously he had a lot to do with that winning goal."
Beauvillier, who took a maintenance day at Thursday's practice, logged 11:01 time on ice and played a major piece in what would have been the Isles go-ahead goal had the Penguins not tied it up 3-3 with 1:29 remaining in regulation. Beauvillier obstructed Murray with screen down low as defenseman Nick Leddy ripped a shot from the point.
"He was on the puck," Trotz said of Beauvillier. "Even on the Leddy goal, he was in the dirty area. That goal might not go in if Beau is not right in front of Murray and taking his eyes away a little bit. I liked his game."
Beauvillier is "probable" to return to the lineup for Game 2.
Video: PIT@NYI, Gm1: Leddy fires knuckling puck by Murray
Adam Pelech played the most of the four rookies (23:05 TOI), on the Islanders shutdown pair with Ryan Pulock. They had their work cut out for them going head-to-head against the Pens top line of Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust and they excelled at the challenge, holding all three off the scoresheet.
"Anytime you're re able to do that, it's huge," Pelech said. "That's not to say they didn't have some looks or some scoring chances, because they did, but I thought we did a good job of making it hard on [the Penguins top line]. [Crosby] is obviously an extremely talent player and tough to play against. it's a tough challenge, but it's almost exciting to have that kind of challenge."
Pelech got the Islanders moving in the right direction early on. Just over a minute after Tom Kuhnhackl's goal was overturned for offside, Pelech put a quick shot on net from the point, that Jordan Eberle corralled and slid through Murray's five-hole to put the Isles up 1-0.
A little offense from the shutdown defenseman is always a plus, but Pelech's seen his game steadily rise in the second half of the season.
"I think over the course of the season my confidence has definitely been growing especially in the last few months," Pelech said. "Things have been going well and I think the offense is starting to come. It was really exciting playing in my first playoff game."
Since making his NHL debut on Dec. 23, Toews hasn't missed a beat. The 25-year-old defenseman has integrated right in with the Islanders lineup and proven his poise in high-stakes situations. So much so, that Trotz has rolled with Toews as the quarterback on his top power-play unit into the playoffs.
So it shouldn't be a surprise when Trotz said Toews, "looked like he'd been here a number of years already." Toews saw action against the Penguins third line of Dominik Simon-Nick Bjugstad-Phil Kessel and wasn't fazed by the matchup.
Toews logged 19:37 ice time including 1:42 on the power play. He picked up a secondary assist on Brock Nelson's first period tally on the man-advantage, and stopped a two-on-one shorthanded rush on the preceding sequence that could have easily altered the momentum.
"There's a lot of excitement in any of those [high-stakes] games," Toews said. "Things are going to happen, and breaks are going to come your way and you've just got to handle it."
Barzal, Beauvillier, Pelech and Toews each relished in the moment of living out a childhood dream, but when it came down to the opening drop of the puck, they didn't let the moment get too big. Now it's a matter of replicating that when the Penguins push back in Game 2.
"I think we pride ourselves on being prepared and trusting the process," Toews said. "You can't get too high or too low in these moments. It's a long series. We've got a long way to go."
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