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Mathew Barzal Leading New York Islanders Over Washington Capitals

Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders

The New York Islanders and Washington Capitals have fought through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. New York and Washington both won two of their matchups this season, tying for 14 goals apiece. However, the Islanders have swept the Caps so far, clinching all three games already played behind the play of Mathew Barzal.

Follow a sleepy performance in the East round robin, Alex Ovechkin continued to be subdued throughout this series. In Game 3, the Isles held Ovechkin to just one shot, which was unsuccessful. Instead, Barzal’s overtime goal has cemented him as the offensive force. So far this series, Barzal capitalized on his chances, and coupled with superb goaltending, the Isles may complete their eighth sweep in franchise history. 

New York Islanders Dominating Play


The Barzal and Brock Nelson lines took over for the Islanders in Game 1. At 5-on-5, these lines combined for nine shots, only allowing four. The top line to watch for Washington was expected to be Nicklas Backstrom‘s — who is out due to concussion procedure — along with Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson. Without Backstrom, however, Evgeny Kuznetsov was added to the top line, and the results have not been as expected.

The Nelson line particularly was unstoppable in Game 1, finishing with 100 percent expected goals. While they were badly outshot in Game 2, the line tallied one of the two 5-on-5 goals and created four high-danger chances, surrendering just one. While much of the Nelson line’s success can be attributed to sheer talent, one cannot ignore how all three of New York’s 5-on-5 goals were due to blunders from Lars Eller’s line.

The Capitals called Eller to the No. 2 center spot after Backstrom’s injury. His bad turnover on a breakout resulted in a goal from Matt Martin in Game 2. This is a far cry from the Capitals from the regular season, who were seventh in Corsi For in 5-on-5 in comparison to the Islanders who ranked 29th. After Game 3, the Caps were 18th in Corsi For in 5-on-5, below teams eliminated in the qualifying round. 

The Islanders are on track to outscore their regular-season appearances against the Capitals. After Game 3 they scored 11 goals in three games in comparison to the 14 goals scored during the regular season. Washington only has five goals from these three games despite also notching 14 goals in these teams’ previous four matchups. 

Moreover, the Islanders have a 65.9 percent expected goals and 24 high-danger chances to Washington’s 10. Once near the top of the league in 5-on-5, Washington only scored two 5-on-5 goals. New York’s forwards completely took over this series so far. As Washington’s middling bottom-six forwards continue to play, the Barzal and Nelson lines made their presence almost unnoticeable. Besides taking foolish penalties, these Caps’ players have made very little difference in how the game has played out.

Barzal Overtime Goal and Top Line Dominance

If the Mathew Barzal overtime goal showed something it was how hungry the Islanders are. Barzal is no longer a rookie, but the play he has produced over the course of the playoffs is a culmination of his journey from a young player with promise to an unstoppable force. However, he is still only 23 and has not reached his peak yet.

However, one cannot credit Barzal alone for that precise overtime goal. Derrick Brassard won a board battle in his zone and passed the puck to Jordan Eberle, Barzal’s consistent partner. Eberle skated into the neutral zone and saw Barzal cheating at the Capitals’ blue line until the puck crossed over. The ever-speedy Barzal skated to the goal line to put a deke feint on Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. The Washington netminder came across the crease, allowing Barzal to sink the puck for the Islanders overtime wine. 

In a Zoom press interview after the game, New York head coach Barry Trotz said Mat wants to be that difference-maker, and he got an opportunity and he capitalized.

Barzal’s goal not only showed how in-sync he and Eberle are, but also the former’s speed and quick thinking on the ice. In order to sink his goal in, Barzal swooped behind Washington’s undisciplined defence to close in on the net. Moreover, there was a moment when it appeared as though Barzal was potentially offside, but he kept his skate on the blue line. Barzal is more than just a talented hockey player, but also a smart player.


Before training camp, it was unknown whether Semyon Varlamov or Thomas Greiss would start for New York. Trotz played the two relatively evenly during the regular season. After the Stanley Cup qualifiers and coming into the first round of the playoffs, Varlamov got the nod. 

This proved to be a smart decision as Varlamov is entering Game 4 with a .961 5-on-5 save percentage. While Washington has not mustered many chances, Varlamov has limited the Caps opportunities to mostly outside the slot. 

“Your goalie is your eraser,” Trotz said in his Game 3 Zoom press conference. “Sometimes as a coach or a team, your goaltender can erase all your mistakes. We made a couple mistakes there and Varly erased it. Getting it for him is a good process, where you want to reward your goalie for bailing you out and you can bail him out with a win when you get that opportunity.”

In Game 1, Varlamov made 24 impressive saves. In addition, he blocked 22 shots in Game 3, and the one puck that got past him came on the power play and through a screen. Overall, Varlamov has shut down the vast majority of attempts by Washington. He has allowed two goals or less in six of his seven playoff starts; all six of those games were wins for the Islanders. Whether he will be able to continue high-powered goaltending in Game 4 and lead New York to the semi-finals is still up in the air. 

Moving Forward

Despite coming in as the defensive powerhouse of this series, the Barzal and the Islanders have proven to be able to dismantle a powerful Caps offence. While there are no excuses for Washington’s lack of discipline in committing penalties and with the puck, whether Backstrom returns can completely change the direction of this series. Up 3-0 in the series, New York could move on to with just a single win. However, the Capitals may come back. Two years ago, they were down 2-0 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but came back to win the Stanley Cup. 

A continued structured defence and forecheck from the Islanders might be able to fend off Washington, even with its strongest offensive players back on their a-game.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


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