Inside the NHL

Russ Farwell remembers the last time he saw Mathew Barzal playing hockey at a level this dominant.

That was three years ago, when Barzal led the Seattle Thunderbirds to their first Western Hockey League championship in a playoff run that included an early series win over the Everett Silvertips and star netminder Carter Hart. Now, in a testament to junior hockey’s progression in the Pacific Northwest, Barzal and Hart already are having a playoff rematch on a grander NHL stage as marquee names with the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively, in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

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And similar to that spring of 2017, Barzal and his Islanders now have a commanding 3-1 series lead over Hart and the Flyers heading into Game 5 on Tuesday. For Farwell, a former Flyers general manager in the 1990s who was GM and owner of the Thunderbirds in 2017, a huge reason the Islanders are prevailing is the same as why his team won three years ago.

“Barzy’s been amazing in that he’s totally now established himself and he plays his game,” Farwell said of the British Columbia-born former T-birds captain. “He does everything there that he used to do here. He’s a better defensive player, but he plays. He pivots and holds it and wheels that offensive zone. He doesn’t have to change. He’s gone there and imposed his game.”

And that’s as good as it’ll likely get for hockey fans locally; with the already long odds of either Barzal or Hart joining the expansion Kraken growing even longer with each step taken by the pair along this somewhat surprising Stanley Cup route.

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Particularly with Barzal, there had been rumors of the Islanders swinging some type of deal with the Kraken ahead of the expansion draft next year. Barzal is due a multiyear contract, and the NHL’s recent freezing of salary cap thresholds the next few seasons means some teams will inevitably dump bigger-money players.

The Kraken seemed a plausible Barzal destination, especially once Barry Trotz took over as Islanders coach last season and imposed a more defensive style. But now, with Barzal amassing 10 playoff points while dominating for vast swaths against the Flyers, it’s tough to imagine the Isles jettisoning a top-line playmaker who has them poised for their first conference finals berth in 27 years.

As for Hart, the comparisons with championship runs by goalie Ken Dryden in 1971, Patrick Roy in 1986 and Jordan Binnington last year, not to mention Ron Hextall’s seven-game finals loss in 1987 for the Flyers, already were being made after he dispatched Montreal in the opening round. First-year playoff goaltenders carrying teams to titles is not unprecedented, though Hart is up against it now after Barzal imposed his will in Games 3 and 4.

“I think Hart has held up pretty well, actually,” Farwell said of the Alberta native. “To me, what’s jumping out is that the skill level between the teams is so different. The Flyers are really struggling to keep up.”

Still, Hart getting the Flyers this far has eased concerns about his inconsistent play earlier this season, his sophomore campaign. He’s still only 22, and his team was never supposed to get this far this quickly; meaning it would be a tough sell to Flyers fans if he’s gone a year from now.

The Flyers haven’t won a Cup since 1975, the Islanders since 1983. So, the fact one will be among the final four clubs next round is a reason why this series has generated plenty of hockey-wide interest.

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That interest was rendered secondary late last week when the NHL declared a two-day moratorium on playoff games to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The league was justifiably criticized for not immediately joining NBA, WNBA, MLS and some MLB teams in halting play Wednesday.

But a push last Thursday started by American-born Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk did lead to hockey players halting their games. And it raised hopes the NHL and players are making some strides in what’s been a year of reckoning for the league, starting with November’s allegations that former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters used racist language toward Black player Akim Aliu a decade ago in the minors.

Once the Islanders-Flyers series resumed Saturday with a pivotal Game 3, Barzal played a key role just as he did three years ago in a third-game playoff overtime victory over Hart and the Silvertips. In the 2017 affair, Barzal pounced on a long rebound allowed by Hart on a point blast and scored the winner to give the Thunderbirds an insurmountable 3-0 series edge.

This time around, with the series tied and Islanders clinging to a one-goal, third-period lead, Barzal was again parked on Hart’s doorstep. Hart appeared to be paying too much attention to Barzal and not the puck as it slid across his goal mouth destined for the centerman.

Hart tried to intercept, but errantly deflected the puck into his own net for a backbreaking insurance goal from which the Flyers couldn’t recover. By Game 4 on Sunday, Hart was on the bench — coach Alain Vigneault not wanting to play the youngster on consecutive days — and the Islanders again prevailed.

Farwell is proud of seeing the two undisputed stars of both Seattle-area junior teams going at it again so quickly at this level. If the Isles prevail, they’ll face the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team featuring Spokane native Tyler Johnson, a veteran forward with a far better chance of being picked up by the Kraken than either Barzal or Hart.

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Glancing further ahead, there’s a chance of an all-Thunderbirds Stanley Cup Final pitting Barzal against former Seattle junior teammate Shea Theodore and the Vegas Golden Knights.

“Theodore’s been really good too,” Farwell said of his former T-birds defenseman from 2011-2015. “He’s had a really good playoff and he’s a threat every night.”

For now, these playoffs are still Thunderbirds-Silvertips revisited. And only Hart lifting his game to an entirely different level is likely to prevent some recent Pacific Northwest history from repeating itself.