It may still be pre-season, but Mat Barzal showed his confidence last night during the NY Islanders' 6-5 defeat at the hands of the NJ Devils. From the opening puck drop, he seemed to have an extra gear during his three-point performance, as he was the best player on the ice for the Isles.
Since his Calder Trophy rookie season, when he put up 85 points, Mat Barzal hasn't sniffed the same type of production during the next six seasons. One of the biggest knocks on Barzal has been his inability to pull the trigger when he has an attempt on goal. He's been a pass-first player since his days with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, but to take that next step and become one of the league's best offensive minds, he'll need to find himself lighting the lamp more often.
Though he only had two shots on goal last night, Barzal made the best of his opportunities, capitalizing on both of his opportunities. The first on a breakaway from the red line, and the second coming from in close off a feed from Bo Horvat.
"I think that was everybody's knock on him before, he doesn't shoot the puck enough," said Horvat. "He's proven what kind of shot he has this preseason. He's just got to continue to keep shooting the puck. He's got a lethal shot."
The key to Barzal's and likely the Islanders' season will rely on the chemistry built between him and Horvat between now and the end of the year. We got glimpses of it last season before Barzal's regular season-ending injury, but now, the two have training camp and pre-season to continue growing that bond.
Last night, after Horvat retrieved the puck following an Anders Lee hit, he found Barzal right away cutting toward the goal. Barzal beat Akira Schmid on the glove side, pulling the Isles within one goal. Later in the third, Horvat made a shifty move around Luke Hughes before finding a cutting Barzal. Barzal, unable to get an angle on goal, spun away from the defender and put the puck on a tee for Matt Martin, who was stoned by Schmid.
"To see them clicking together like that is very important for us, and it's exciting for the start of the year," said Ryan Pulock on the budding relationship between Barzal and Horvat. Defense and goaltending remain the main components of the Islanders' success, but additional offense could bring them to a higher level. Barzal is one of the league's most talented players, and with a window closing to compete for a Stanley Cup, he'll need to perform at his peak this year.