Watching Jordan Eberle thrive under pressure isn’t new. With 26 points in 12 World Junior Championship games, he became a Canadian hero, and add in his 13-point World Championship performance in 2015 and it’s clear he’s a player who can shine in the spotlight.
But the New York Islanders right winger hasn’t really showcased that big-time ability in the NHL. In his only playoff appearance in his eight previous NHL campaigns – he played for Edmonton for seven seasons, don’t forget – he managed a dismal two points in 13 playoff games with the Oilers, and after a decent debut with the Islanders last season, his performance throughout 2018-19 didn’t exactly scream scoring star. With just 37 points in 78 games this season, Eberle posted the worst full-season offensive output of his career and only matched his performance from the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. It’s fair to say that he hadn’t brought his clutch nature to the NHL.
That notion has quickly changed over the past week, however, with the Islanders completing the first-round sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday. Eberle scored a goal in all four of New York’s victories, becoming the first Islanders player since Ray Ferraro in 1993 to score goals in the first four games of a playoff run. Overall, Eberle’s six points are good for fifth in post-season scoring – and second among players not on the Vegas Golden Knights’ second line – so it finally looks like he has woken up.
But it would be a disservice to Mathew Barzal to ignore his part in Eberle’s post-season heroics. After playing the majority of the season alongside center Brock Nelson and left winger Anders Lee, Eberle was moved onto Barzal’s wing in mid-March and the difference in production has been significant. When playing with Barzal this season, Eberle has an individual rate of 1.1 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, more than double his 0.5 rate when paired with Nelson. Better yet, though, since Barzal and Eberle were reunited on March 11, he leads the Islanders with 1.52 goals per 60 minutes at five-a-side. Add in his post-season production and Eberle’s goals rate leaps to 2.3 per 60 minutes, with 215 of his 236 minutes played alongside Barzal.
In the first round, Barzal played set-up man for Eberle, with three of the reigning Calder Trophy winner’s five assists against the Penguins coming on Eberle’s goals and one more coming on a play in which each registered a helper. The pair sit tied with Dallas’ Jamie Benn and Miro Heiskanen for the most high-danger scoring chances (21) at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. Of those, Eberle has had seven five-a-side high-danger scoring chances, good to tie five other players for the top spot in the playoffs, and Barzal isn’t far behind with five of his own. In terms of points per 60 minutes, Eberle’s 6.84 rate in 5-on-5 action is fourth among players with at least two games played, and Barzal is fifth at 6.44. But it’s not all offense. New York’s top line of Eberle, Barzal and Lee weren’t on the ice for a single goal against and had more than 60 percent of the scoring chances at five-a-side.
Also aiding Eberle’s output is a boost in shooting percentage. It’s a small sample size, but after a mediocre regular-season showing – his 10.6-percent rate ranked 205th in the league and was the third-lowest of his career – only Mark Stone’s 66.7-percent conversion rate is better than Eberle’s 40.0-percent shooting efficiency among skaters with at least five shots at 5-on-5. Meanwhile, in all situations, Eberle’s 26.7-percent rate is good for fifth. Barzal didn’t light the lamp himself, but he was able to repeatedly set up Eberle, who reaped the rewards, and his goals were extremely vital to New York’s success: he set the tone for Game 1 by scoring 1:40 into the first period, scored the game-winning goal in Game 2, took momentum away from Pittsburgh after the Penguins took a lead in Game 3 and did the same thing in Game 4.
Expecting Eberle to continue scoring at a goal-per-game rate is silly, and it should be pointed out that Eberle has more than his share of off nights over the course of a season. But his return to top-flight form while paired with a budding young star can’t be glossed over. Together, Eberle and Barzal have become one of the post-season’s best duos and one that will need to continue scoring to keep the Islanders in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.