Mathew Barzal came to play — and the Islanders get to keep playing

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Mathew Barzal came to play — and the Islanders get to keep playing

ELMONT, N.Y. — Patrick Roy made sure to steer a question about Mathew Barzal to the Islanders as a whole. “It was a great team win,” the coach said after the Isles staved off elimination with a double-overtime Game 4 win.

We won’t disagree with Roy. But may we also present Barzal as Exhibit A in the case for having a star talent raise his game in the playoffs. Twice in Game 4, with their playoff lives on the line, the Islanders were fighting for every inch of space on the UBS Arena ice. Probably more than twice, but there were two big stretches of the game during which the Isles put forth a supreme effort to just breathe the same air as the suffocating Hurricanes.

The most important stretch was basically the entire 21:24 of overtime. Carolina tied this one with 5:52 to go on its second power-play goal of the game and, aside from a couple of broken-play attempts, the Canes hummed around all three zones looking for the game and series winner. Semyon Varlamov kept Carolina at bay and the rest of the Islanders worked as hard as possible just to keep the game going.

Until Barzal got on for his first shift of double overtime. Bo Horvat won a battle with Brady Skjei behind the Carolina net and flung a puck from a difficult angle that Frederik Andersen turned into the slot. Robert Bortuzzo, just off the bench, hopped onto a half-slapper that was headed wide — but Barzal got inside position on Skjei to deflect it behind Andersen for the winner.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How the Islanders stayed alive and took Game 4: 3 takeaways

Just getting that inside position was a win against the Canes, who box out better than just about anyone in the league. Then there was the shin-high tip, an incredibly skilled play by the Islanders’ most skilled player.

“You’re waiting for the thud of the puck against the boards,” Bortuzzo said. “When you don’t hear anything and then the fans start yelling, that’s a special feeling.”

Maybe more impressive from Barzal is what he did in the second period with his team down a goal. From about the time Seth Jarvis converted on the power play eight minutes into the first to give the Canes the lead until that 10:10 mark of the second, the Islanders were being slowly put down by the Canes, who had a body on every Islander, a stick on every contested puck and a strong desire to close this series out on Saturday to get home for several days of rest.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a series where the checking is this tight,” Barzal said.

So he did something about it. His forays around the outside of the Carolina zone have mostly been fruitless the first three games, save a nifty feed for a Horvat goal late in the first period of Game 2. This time he pulled up, curled, stopped to get Skjei out of his shooting lane and zipped one off the post and in. It brought the UBS Arena crowd and his teammates to life as pretty much only Barzal on this Islander team can.

“There’s only a handful of guys who can stop and start like he can,” Bortuzzo said.

Barzal hasn’t had the gaudy numbers between his Calder Trophy-winning 2017-18 and this year, when he made it to 80 points. And there have been times in the Isles’ long playoff runs when he hasn’t made an impact consistently. But there have also been times when he’s done what he did on Saturday. Think back to Game 4 against the Bruins in the 2021 second round, when his late third-period goal snapped a tight 1-1 tie and sent the Isles on to three straight wins and a trip to the semis.

Or his first playoff OT winner, back in the 2020 bubble to put the Isles up 3-0 on the Caps. That one came in an empty building in Toronto; Saturday’s came in a full building on Long Island, the place that appreciates Barzal the most.

It’s still going to be nearly impossible for this Islander team here. They’re headed back to Raleigh for Tuesday’s Game 5 having expended every ounce of effort and skill to extend this series. The Canes still have the upper hand and were still the better team for most of Game 4.

“We expected a long series and we’ve got to focus on the next one,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “When the games are even like they are, it’s not like it was 3-0 and we were dominating. The game could have gone either way, just like the other three.”

The Islanders, as Roy noted, do win as a team, maybe more than most teams in the postseason. It’s been their way for years. But when Barzal can raise his game up and out of the slog, there’s a little more hope than before.

And his team gets to play another one.

(Top photo of Mathew Barzal celebrating his game-winning goal against Frederik Andersen: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)