Six months after they were dumped by their captain, John Tavares—the man who was both their best player and the most crucial piece of their long-term plan, who had publicly assured everyone two years ago that he would not leave them for his boyhood favorite franchise—the New York Islanders are one of the hottest teams in hockey. Despite the fact that they couldn’t even make the playoffs in their last two seasons with Tavares, what remains in Brooklyn/Uniondale after his departure for Toronto has rallied around a legendary coach, a young leader, and some blisteringly hot goaltending to put themselves back into postseason contention. On Thursday night, the Isles won their fifth in a row and eighth of their last nine with an OT winner against the Blackhawks from defenseman Devon Toews, who was playing in only his fifth career NHL game.
While Toews was the unexpected hero, second-year center Mathew Barzal was the unsurprising first star. The 21-year-old fashionista won the Calder last season by leading his team in assists, but in this season, he’s truly asserted himself as the unquestioned cornerstone of the Islanders’ future. Though he struggled to find the back of the net early on this year, Barzal has been on fire recently, scoring eight times in his past nine games (including two on Thursday). Barzal is an absolutely gorgeous skater, an intuitive playmaker, and unselfish sometimes to a fault. You cannot take your eyes off him when he’s on the ice (he looks pretty good off it, too), and aside from team-best Corsi/Fenwick numbers and solid season tallies of 12 goals and 26 assists, Barzal’s natural hat trick in his team’s 4-0 revenge win against Tavares’s Maple Leafs last week cemented him as an instant Islanders legend.