It was a given that one of the Islanders’ largest weaknesses heading into their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins was experience.
In the last three years, most of the Penguins’ roster has seen more postseason time than many of Islanders have put together in their entire careers.
The dynamic was no more evident than between the teams’ two biggest playmakers.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, took the Nassau Coliseum ice for Game 1 on Wednesday night with 160 postseason appearances under his belt.
Islanders second-year center Mathew Barzal — the reigning Calder Trophy winner who grew up idolizing Sidney Crosby as a boy in Coquitlam, British Columbia, calling him “a hockey wizard, a god almost” — was playing in his very first.
On Wednesday night, though, you couldn’t tell the difference between the legendary veteran and the gifted youngster as the latter was one of New York’s most valuable players in its 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1.
The 21-year-old helped provide some level-headedness to a game Game 1 that was in the throes of anarchy. Two Tom Kuhnhackl goals were disallowed and Josh Bailey, who eventually scored the game-winner, hit the post with seven seconds left in regulation after the Penguins tied it at three just moments earlier.
Leading a 2-on-1 rush in overtime, Barzal patiently waited and deked goaltender Matt Murray out of position before backhanding a chance off the post. The deflection came out to Bailey, setting up an easy tap-in of a game-winner.
“Barzy in particular, I thought he set the tone,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “He was skating. He was dangerous . . . You wouldn’t know that this was [his] first playoff game.”
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan sent Crosby’s line out against Barzal’s on multiple occasions to try and get Pittsburgh’s offense going. Of New York’s resolute, defensive lineup, Barzal’s first line with Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle is the most susceptible.
However, the line kept Crosby’s line stuck in Pittsburgh’s defensive zone as they played one of their best offensive games in over a month.
Crosby was held pointless with just two shots on goal while the trio of Barzal, Lee, and Eberle combined for four points.
“I think it’s just the way evolved,” Barzal said of his constant matchups with Crosby. “He’s so dangerous, he’s the best player in the world for a reason.”
His efforts left the future Hall-of-Famer befuddled following Game 1 but determined to make adjustments ahead of Friday’s Game 2 at the Coliseum.
“We just have to get out of our end. We can’t score from 200 feet away,” Crosby said. “We have to do a better job of getting it in their end and spending our energy in the offensive zone.”
That’s quite an impact made by a 21-year-old kid getting his first taste of postseason hockey.