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Barzal relishing chance to face Crosby in playoff debut with Islanders

Center grew up idolizing Penguins captain, says 'he's almost like a hockey wizard'

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. -- Mathew Barzal would have been excited for his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, regardless of opponent.

But when the 21-year-old center looks across the ice and sees center Sidney Crosby, the player he idolized growing up, his excitement will be off the charts when the New York Islanders play the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday (7:30 p.m.; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS2, MSG+, ATTSN-PT).

"He's almost like a hockey wizard, a god almost," Barzal said after the Islanders skated at their practice facility Tuesday. "Every play he makes is so hard and so crisp. He sees things so fast. Even when you're watching sometimes … he makes every play that you see from a birds-eye view. Unbelievable, right?" 


[RELATED: Islanders vs. Penguins playoff preview | Complete Islanders vs. Penguins series coverage]


Crosby has 113 points (36 goals, 77 assists) in 66 games against New York. This season, the Penguins captain finished with 100 points (35 goals, 65 assists) for the sixth time since entering the NHL in 2005. 

Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season after leading NHL rookies with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists), said he's not interested in trying to go point-for-point with Crosby. Instead, the focus is simply winning the best-of-7 series.

"I'm not really putting too much pressure on myself," Barzal said. "I'm just excited. It's just about playing the right way. I think a lot of times this year, I've had really good games as a line and as an individual, come out with zero points, and it might have been my best game of the month. That's the way it goes sometimes.

"But in the playoffs, as long as you're playing the right way and playing hard and setting a good example for the next line following, it goes a long way."  

Video: NYI@WPG: Barzal finds twine to end lengthy drought

Though Barzal took a step back offensively, he still led the Islanders with 62 points (18 goals, 44 assists) in 82 games. But the argument can be made his numbers mostly dropped because of coach Barry Trotz's defense-first mentality, which helped Barzal's overall game evolve over the course of the season.

New York missed the playoffs in Barzal's first NHL season and allowed 293 goals, most in the League. This season, the Islanders allowed the fewest (191).

"Last year, I just got a lot of bounces," Barzal said. "Games this year where I thought I was going good and had zero points sometimes, last year I'd have five in a game. It's just how it's worked this year a little bit. 

"Obviously, everybody had to sacrifice a little bit just to get the goals [against] down and become a playoff team. That's what it takes. As a player, the last 20-25 games especially, just defensively and backchecking and playing hard and playing to win … I think I kind of just got that back in my game. I lost it a little bit last year, playing free and all that kind of stuff. It works, but it may not work consistently towards winning. The goal this year at the start of the year was to win. It didn't matter who you were or what role you [had], you had to go do your job. That's why we're in the playoffs."   

Video: MTL@NYI: Barzal sets up Lee's go-ahead goal

Barzal finished fourth on the Islanders with 179 shots on goal but scored once in his final 24 games. Trotz, though, didn't sense his top center gripping his stick more tightly.

"He always thinks of himself as a playmaker," Trotz said. "I just said, 'You know, make sure you've got a curveball and a fastball and use both of them, and do that a little bit more,' and he has.

"I don't think there's frustration at all. You watch the way he was flying around today, he's excited about tomorrow. That's what you want. He's a good, young, dynamic player who's going to be a big part of our success going forward. I'm excited for him. I just told him to enjoy it and play your guts out every shift."  

Islanders captain Anders Lee, who is expected to be Barzal's left wing when the puck drops Wednesday, had a front-row seat for his evolution as a two-way player during the regular season. Lee is hopeful Barzal will raise his game on a bigger stage.

"He's extremely more well-rounded," Lee said. "You can see that. It takes time to figure out these things out as a centerman and a young guy that has so much offensive talent that can draw him into certain things. But he's really rounded out his game, completed himself a little bit and you're only going to see him grow more and more with his game throughout the years. 

Video: CHI@NYI: Barzal whacks puck out of air for goal

"The step that he's taken this year has been huge for us. It will continue to be huge, especially coming up tomorrow night."   

So now the grade-school kid who used to watch highlight videos of Crosby, whom Barzal described as an "awesome, down-to-Earth, focused dude" after meeting him at the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game, will try to prevent him from winning the Stanley Cup for a fourth time. 

"I'm a 21-year-old getting to go up one of the best players in the world, if not the best, a guy I grew up watching," Barzal said. "It's pretty special for me. I'm a competitor too, so I love to be out there competing and playing with some fire. I'm excited."

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