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Bentivenga: Barzal’s brilliance helps Islanders take Game 1 in Tampa Bay

The New York Islanders took a 1-0 lead in their Stanley Cup Semifinal series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, following a 2-1 win at Amalie Arena on Sunday. 

This is already a big step in the right direction for the Isles, as they lost game one against this same Lightning squad 8-2 in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final, in a series where they never held a lead once. Now, at least after one game, the script has been flipped. So how did the Isles manage to take game one this time around? With a little help from their budding franchise center. 

From the drop of the puck in this game, Mathew Barzal looked like a man on a mission. He looked as confident as ever, and why wouldn’t he? After being held to just three assists in round one, Barzal scored points in four of the six games against the Boston Bruins, including a three-game goal-scoring streak from games three through five. 

The first period in game one against the Bolts wasn’t much to write home about for number 13, other than taking a big open-ice hit from Alex Killorn. You could tell that hit lit a fire under Barzal, and the middle frame was when this game really took a turn. Just over the halfway mark of the second, Barzal picked up the puck at center and quickly gained the Lightning blue line. The 2018 Calder Trophy winner made an incredible move under the stick of a Tampa Bay defender and fired a “Grade A” chance off the blocker of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Oh, I forgot to mention the name of the defender Barzal turned inside out on that scoring chance, maybe some of you have heard of him… Victor Hedman? You know, the one who has been in Norris Trophy conversations for the last five years or more? And is considered by many to be the best defenseman in the NHL?

READ MORE: Repetto: Islanders Need To Take Advantage on power play against Lightning

Barzal wasn’t done in that period, either. Sloppy changes by some Tampa players (combined with a Steven Stamkos turnover) resulted in Josh Bailey intercepting a cross-corner pass. From there, Bailey found a streaking Barzal, who slipped one through Vasilevskiy’s five-hole to make it 1-0 for the visitors. Beautiful drive to the net by Barzal, who once again torched the Bolts’ top defense pairing, although this time it was Jan Rutta over his partner Hedman. That’s now four goals in the last five games for Barzal, who was only held to four assists in six games when these two teams met last postseason. Player development at its finest. 

Barzal and his linemates were also on the ice when Ryan Pulock let go of a rocket that leaked in to put the Isles up by two. While Barzal himself didn’t register a point on the Pulock tally, it was nice to see the first line stepping up with two big goals against the defending Stanley Cup champions. 

There’s no denying that if the Islanders want to reach the summit this season, Mathew Barzal will have to play like their best player. He certainly looked like one of, if not the best Islander out there in game one… strongly debatable between him and Semyon Varlamov (who might get the nod here), but I digress. If Barzal can continue to a) take advantage of the time and space he’s given and b) continue to create opportunities for both himself and his teammates, we could have another Islanders upset on our hands once again.





Follow Carter on Twitter @cbentivenga14

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