Mathew Barzal can appreciate how the New York Islanders’ identity is built around being defensively sound.
In centering New York’s top line, Barzal also knows it’s his role to contribute on offense, too.
Acknowledging it took him a few games to find a groove following the NHL’s 4 1/2 month coronavirus-forced pause, Barzal was pleased to finally contribute at both ends in a 5-1 preliminary round series-clinching winover the Florida Panthers on Friday.
“We had some chances, our line, unfortunately we didn’t get any buries last game,” Barzal said. “We hadn’t been scored on all series, but at the end of the day, we’re out there to create offense. And it was nice to get a couple.”
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Barzal scored on a third-period breakaway and made a nifty pass to set up Anthony Beauvillier’s eventual game-winning goal in the first period in helping the Islanders win Game 4 of their best-of-five series. The win advanced the Eastern Conference’s seventh-seeded Isles to the best-of-seven first round, which they'll open next week against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
“The first few games, at least for myself, it was kind of adapt. I almost forgot how hard it is to score and get to the net,” he said. “I think it took me a game or two to get that touch and feel back. I feel like I found it a bit tonight.”
That’s encouraging news for the Islanders, who had Beauvillier and Jean-Gabriel Pageau score three each and account for nearly half of New York's 13-goal output during the series.
Not in question was New York’s stingy defense. The Panthers, who ranked sixth in the NHL in averaging 3.3 goals in the regular season, scored just seven goals — and only three in even-strength situations.
“We all know as a group the style of our play isn’t flashy,” said Brock Nelson, who also had a goal and assist in Game 4. “But we trust and believe in one another that every line can go out there and contribute five on five, and also be responsible defensively against anybody on the other side.”
No more was that duality more evident than in what proved to be defenseman Ryan Pulock’s momentum-turning play Friday.
Some 25 seconds after Nelson scored a power-play goal to put the Islanders up 3-1 with 8:01 into the second period, Panthers sniper Aleksander Barkov had a golden opportunity denied at the other end.
With Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov out of position, Barkov had the puck with an open net in front of him, only to have his backhander deflect off the out-reached stick of Pulock, who dived across in desperation.
“To me, it was one of those defining moments,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said of Pulock, who led New York defensemen with 10 goals and 35 points. “Those are the plays, the commitment, the extra effort that wins you those inches. We had a lot of that today.”
The Islanders are making their second consecutive playoff appearance after being swept by Carolina in the second round last year.
This year’s team is more experienced, and also features the late-season additions of Pageau and veteran defenseman Andy Greene.
Trotz liked what he’s seen so far from a team that bounced back from a 4-2 loss in Game 3 in which the Islanders lacked discipline in being penalized five times — two leading to goals. And they weren't rattled Friday after the Panthers scored a power-play goal in the final minute of the first period to cut New York’s lead to 2-1.
“I think that’s a sign of maturity,” Trotz said. “I think we’ve learned a some lessons along the way.”
NOTES: D Johnny Boychuk missed his third consecutive game since being shouldered to the head by Panthers D Mike Matheson in the second period of Game 1. ... Trotz made one lineup change by inserting RW Leo Komarov for Tom Kuhnhackl. Trotz said he made the move to add fresh legs and because he considers Komarov to be a more physical penalty killer. ... The Islanders improved to 6-1 in best-of-five series, having lost their last appearance in being swept by Washington in 1986.
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