Helped Seattle win its first U.S. Division title in 11 years; up next is the Western Conference semifinal series with the Everett Silvertips.
KENT — When Mathew Barzal was sent back to the Seattle Thunderbirds after nearly making the opening-game roster of the New York Islanders at age 18, he was given some simple, sage advice.
“They told me to have a strong year, play a pro game and be a winner,” Barzal said. “That really stuck with me.”
So far, mission accomplished for the Islanders’ first-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft.
Everett vs. Seattle
Game 1, Friday, Everett at Seattle, 7:35 p.m., ShoWare Center, Kent
Game 2, Sunday, Everett at Seattle, 5:05 p.m., ShoWare Center
Game 3, Wednesday, Seattle at Everett, 7:05 p.m., Xfinity Arena, Everett
Game 4, April 15, Seattle at Everett, 7:35 p.m., Xfinity Arena
Game 5, April 16, Everett at Seattle, 7:05 p.m. ShoWare Center*
Game 6, April 18, Seattle at Everett, 7:05 p.m., Xfinity Arena*
Game 7, April 19, Everett at Seattle, 7:05 p.m., ShoWare Center *
* if necessary
Barzal finished the regular season with 27 goals and 88 points in 57 games and was the most valuable player on the first Seattle team to win a U.S. Division title in 11 years. He was also a key player for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
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Despite all that, Barzal knows the upcoming Western Conference semifinal series with the Everett Silvertips matters most.
“I know they’re watching me closely in the playoffs,” Barzal said. “It doesn’t matter if the head coach of the New York Islanders is watching me or not, I have to play the same way.”
One of the most intriguing matchups in the series will be Barzal centering his line against superb Everett goaltender Carter Hart, the top-ranked goaltender in North America heading into his draft year.
Hart started all 10 games against Seattle in the regular season, going 6-2-1-1 with a 1.32 goals-against average and a save percentage just north of 95 percent.
Barzal had four goals and four assists while playing in nine of the games, but Hart won’t be keeping an eye out for No. 13 in a Seattle uniform.
“He’s a very good player, very shifty and very fast,” Hart said. “But it’s not me against anyone out there. I don’t really worry who is shooting the puck. I just try to stop that rubber thing when it’s coming at me.”
That’s typical Hart, who always seems calm and relaxed.
He led the WHL in victories with 35 and was second with a 2.14 goals-against average and in shutouts with six.
Despite the close geographic proximity and familiarity with each other, in this case it has bred more respect than contempt between the two teams.
“There’s a lot of mutual respect because we’re very similar hockey teams,” Hart said.
“We both work very hard for our points. It’s going to be a gritty series.”
Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk, no stranger to playoff hockey after a long and distinguished NHL career, said Barzal has the ability to take over any game against any goaltender.
“When he is playing well he dictates the tempo and makes sure the ice is tilting in our favor,” Konowalchuk said.
“He has a good shot and can score, and when he does, it opens things up for everyone else.”
Hart, who played 63 games in the regular season and then sat out three of the four wins against Portland with an undisclosed injury, is expected to play despite the fact that Mario Petit beat Portland three straight times and leads the playoffs with a goals-against average of 1.33 with a save percentage of 95.3 percent.
“Things happen and Mario did a great job of taking hold of that series,” Hart said. “I felt good when I got back out there. It’s going to be a great atmosphere playing against Seattle, but right now we just want to win the next series.”
Seattle forward Keegan Kolesar, who had three goals in the sweep over Prince George, will serve the second of a two-game suspension in Game 1. Ryan Gropp, who led Seattle with 34 goals in the regular season and missed the series against Prince George with an injury, is listed as day to day.
The Silvertips and Thunderbirds have met only once before in the playoffs, Seattle winning 4-1 in 2014.