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Mat Barzal Cheers On Connor Bedard as His Season Heats Up

Mat Barzal scored the game-winner in his hometown of Vancouver Tuesday night. He now plans to watch his buddy Bedard in a huge rivalry semifinal.
Mathew Barzal

Playing in his hometown of Vancouver for just the fifth time in his NHL career, Mat Barzal earned first-star honors as the New York Islanders took down the Vancouver Canucks by a 6-2 score on Tuesday night.

Barzal's second-period snipe to the top corner stood up as the game-winner.

It took until his 19th game to notch his first goal of the season, but the 25-year-old has rediscovered his scoring touch. 

Barzal has six goals in his last six games, for 10 on the year. And with his two assists on Tuesday night, he has taken over the Islanders' team scoring lead with 40 points in 39 games — nearly on par with his career-high Calder Trophy-winning rookie season, when he put up 85 points in 82 games.

"He's outstanding," said center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who picked up two goals on Tuesday and is also now at 10 for the year. "When he competes like he is right now — he's skating, he's making the right decisions and he's shooting the puck more. 

"He's got a great shot. When he's playing with confidence like that, he's a player that can make a difference."

Lately, Barzal's success has been about quality more than quantity. His goal in the Islanders' 4-1 loss in Seattle on New Year's Day was also on his only shot of the game. 

So far, 2023 is shaping up to be a good year: his shooting percentage in January is a perfect 100 percent!

In December, Barzal logged six goals on 35 shots — 2.69 shots per game and a 17.1 percent shooting percentage. November was two goals on 30 shots for 6.7 percent and two shots per game. And back in October, he averaged 2.78 shots a game, but wasn't able to score.

Over his career, Barzal has been an 11-percent shooter. Tuesday's goal pulls him up just shy of that mark this season at 10.87 percent.

It also ignited a raucous celebration among his personal cheering section, which numbered about 50 people. 

The eight-year contract extension he signed in October will likely keep him in the Eastern Conference for most of his career. But the home-ice advantage is a thing for Barzal.

He's now up to eight points in five games at Rogers Arena and has at least one point in all five games. Also, the Islanders have not yet lost in regulation in Vancouver since he joined the team: they're 3-0-2.

Another local product, defenseman Parker Wotherspoon, appreciated the win just as much as his first career NHL point, scored in his fourth game. The 24-year-old combined with Barzal to set up Casey Cizikas for the fifth goal of the night.

"I didn't want to go and see the people when we were sad," he said of his entourage, which numbered about 30. "Just to win, it's awesome."

Added Barzal on his goal and celebration: "It's always just nice to score here. I know my family's here and a lot of people are coming to watch me, so I was excited."

The Islanders' western road trip now moves to Alberta, with dates in Edmonton on Thursday and Calgary on Friday.

But on Wednesday, Barzal plans to join millions of other Canadians in front of the television, cheering on Team Canada in their semifinal against the United States at the World Junior Championship.

A veteran of two world juniors, Barzal was named one of Canada's top three players in his 2016 and 2017 appearances. He won a silver medal in his second tournament when he recorded eight points in seven games.

That certainly gives some perspective to Connor Bedard's astonishing 21 points in five games to date for Team Canada, including Monday's quarterfinal-winner in overtime against Slovakia.

"It's special," Barzal said. "I haven't really seen anything like it before.

"I'm cheering for him. Gonna watch the game tomorrow — it's a big one. I'm looking forward to seeing his career unfold. It's going to be awesome."

Barzal has known Bedard for years, dating back to when the pre-teen prodigy from North Vancouver showed up to try his hand at summer hockey with NHL players and top prospects from around the Lower Mainland.

"He would have been 12, I think," Barzal said. "Wearing a cage, and his skates looked a little too big. Then we came back the next summer, and he was beating NHL goalies with his shot. It was like, you know the kid's the real deal.

"It's been cool to watch his progression. He seems to get better every year I go back home, so it's going to be fun to see him in the league next year."

When Bedard was in Vancouver with his Regina Pats in November, he talked about texting frequently with Barzal and how he appreciates the advice that the NHL veteran has passed along. 

Barzal sent another text after Bedard's star turn on Monday.

"I just told him that was special, which it was," he said. "I'm rooting for him. He's a kid that's easy to root for. He's down to earth, and we have good banter.

"We're going to be buddies for a long time."

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