VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Matthew Barzal will play for the New York Islanders instead of Vancouver Canucks on Monday night, but plenty of fans will still be rooting for him.
Barzal estimates that 100 supporters, including family, friends, and former coaches and teammates will be at Rogers Arena to watch his first NHL game in his hometown against the Canucks (24-32-9).
“I’m pumped,” Barzal told the Islanders’ website. “I’ve never had this many people coming to a game. I’m excited, I’m a little nervous, but it’s going to be fun. I’m going to have a blast.”
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Barzal, who was born and raised in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, said the game “will be right up there in magnitude” in terms of memorable moments in an outstanding rookie season.
“It’ll be one of the biggest (games) of the year,” Barzal said. “I’m just excited to go back home.”
Barzal has already provided plenty of excitement for Islanders fans. The forward is thriving after he failed to stick with the Isles last season and returned to junior, helping Canada win a world championship and leading his Seattle Thunderbirds to their first Western Hockey League title.
With 18 goals and 49 assists this season, Barzal sits at the top of the Islanders’ scoring chart. His 67 points are two better than New York captain John Tavares, one of the NHL’s elite scorers in recent seasons.
Barzal leads all NHL rookies in scoring and is considered the favorite for the NHL Rookie of the Year award.
Monday’s game will pit Barzal against his perceived closest rival for the top rookie honor, Canucks winger Brock Boeser, who has 33 goals and 27 assists.
But the game is about more than just Barzal’s homecoming for the Islanders or his chase for hardware or personal statistics. Most important, it’s about New York’s chances to stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Despite having one of the league’s best offensive clubs, the Isles can only qualify for the postseason via a wild-card berth — and are on the outside looking in.
Monday’s game is also about redemption. The Islanders have lost six games in a row.
Goaltending has been the Islanders’ biggest difficulty. With Jaroslav Halak struggling and Thomas Greiss sidelined with a lower-body injury, the Islanders turned to minor league call-up Christopher Gibson for their last game in Pittsburgh. After delivering a career-high 47 saves in an overtime loss, he could get the call again.
“I think he’s got the attitude to play well for us,” Islanders coach Doug Weight told Newsday last week.
With only two wins in their past 10 games, the Islanders (29-29-8) need all the points they can get right now. On the other hand, the Canucks are more concerned about auditioning players for next season as they deal with the reality of missing the playoffs for a third straight season.
Young players have been promised additional ice time as the regular season draws to a close, and they can expect more after winger Sven Baertschi became the latest player to go down with an injury. Baertschi injured a shoulder in Friday’s overtime home loss to Nashville and is expected to miss the remainder of the season.
While much attention has been placed on Vancouver’s forwards of the future, the struggling defense will also come under scrutiny. Undoubtedly, general manager Jim Benning hopes to find more defensemen like Alex Edler, who became the club’s career scoring leader among defensemen Friday with two assists against the Nashville Predators.
Edler, 31, now has 326 points in a career spent entirely in a Canucks uniform. Known for his quiet nature and preference for a low profile, Edler expressed rare emotion after surpassing Swedish compatriot and former teammate Mattias Ohlund.
“It means a lot to be up there with (Ohlund),” Edler told reporters. “He was a mentor for me. It was great for me to have him here my first year. How he played on the ice and how he acted off the ice, too. I’m very grateful for that.”
Meanwhile, Boeser, who has not been scoring as consistently as he was a few weeks ago, is not about to try to outshine Barzal in a bid for the top rookie award.
“I can’t worry about that, because I’m not going to play the type of game I know I need to play,” Boeser told Postmedia. “That stuff gets in your head if you over-think it. I’m just worried about playing hard and playing my game. I haven’t been playing my best hockey lately.”