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Barzal taking next step with Islanders

Rookie center earning more ice time as confidence grows

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Mathew Barzal gave Doug Weight no choice.

It was getting late in the third period Thursday at Madison Square Garden and Weight, the New York Islanders' coach who dressed 11 forwards for the game, felt he had to shorten his bench, especially after the New York Rangers scored the tying goal and forced overtime.

But there was Barzal, the 20-year-old rookie center, coming out for a regular shift, playing seven of them totaling 4:38 in the third period before he was on the ice for the start of overtime. He played three shifts totaling 3:05 in OT and finished with a season-high 18:03 of ice time.

"I had to get him out there," Weight said after the Islanders' 4-3 shootout win.

 

[RELATED: Islanders hand Rangers fifth straight loss]

 

Barzal was buzzing. He scored his first NHL goal 1:15 into the second period by blowing past Rick Nash. He had two more Grade A chances from in front of the net, the would-be hat trick if not for stellar saves by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

"A little frustrated that I thought I could have had a little more," Barzal said.

That he didn't was a blip, because this was type of performance the Islanders need from Barzal on a consistent basis. This was the type of performance Weight said he has already come to expect from Barzal even though it came in what was only his ninth career NHL game.

Barzal, the No. 16 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, is proving to the Islanders early this season that he will be the perfect No. 2 center behind John Tavares for years to come, provided, of course, that they can get the captain signed to a long-term contract.

Video: NYI@NYR: Barzal beats Lundqvist for first NHL goal

The Islanders host the San Jose Sharks at Barclays Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, NBCSCA, NHL.TV).

"He wants to be a star," Weight said of Barzal. "He wants to be better. He was crushed when he left last year. I just felt that he was going to be able to make a step. Still has to learn. Some big centerman in the League, but he's taken some big steps."

To understand how far Barzal has come, you have to go back to this time last year, when he was an NHL player, but barely.

Barzal made the Islanders out of training camp last season. But he played in two of their first 13 games before he was returned to his junior team, Seattle of the Western Hockey League.

It wasn't easy for him to go back, not after getting a taste of NHL life. He was frustrated.

Barzal said the hardest part was feeling he was a step behind the many peers from his draft class who stayed in the NHL as rookies last season, including Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Mikko Rantanen, Travis Konecny, Sebastian Aho, Brandon Carlo and Islanders teammate Anthony Beauvillier.

He could have gone back to Seattle angry, feeling he was too good for the WHL, especially after scoring 88 points in 58 games in the 2015-16 season and then actually making an NHL roster. Instead, he chose to be a pro and go back to grind, perform, produce, lead and win.

He put up 79 points, including 69 assists, in 41 games, then had 25 points in 16 playoff games to help Seattle win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions. Barzal was named the most valuable player of the WHL finals.

Video: Mathew Barzal joins NHL Tonight after 4-3 victory

"Who knows how it would have went if I stayed [with the Islanders] last year?" Barzal said. "It doesn't matter now, but I went back to junior last year and worked hard and made sure I didn't lose a step."

Although that was his expectation, Weight was still impressed.

"He handled it well," Weight said. "I think he's a stud. He's going to be a really good player."

It looks like he already is.

Barzal was getting chances in the Islanders' first six games too. He had 14 shots on goal, but he wasn't finishing. He even had a breakaway chance while staring an empty net with one minute left in the Islanders' 6-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 7, but he was too patient, got cute with it and a backchecking Kyle Okposo stripped the puck from him.

"It's just nice to put that behind me now because I've been thinking about it," Barzal said.

There was no cuteness in his play Thursday. He was fast, aggressive, and goal-minded.

Barzal said he started to get comfortable in the previous game, a 3-2 loss at the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday, when he picked up an assist for his first career NHL point. He looked it against the Rangers, especially when he blew by Nash.

"That's part of his game, his ability to back defenders off," Tavares said. "It's not just the speed he generates, but he's able to hold it for an extended period of time and really put the defense on their heels. Great to see him use that as an asset, and certainly I think he'll realize more and more just how much of an advantage it is for him."

It looks like there will be plenty more from Barzal. It looks like he's going to force Weight to play him a lot.

"We can't start celebrating his career yet, but he has the confidence in himself that he can be great," Weight said. "He wants to strive for it."

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