Barry Trotz offered a glimmer of hope regarding what more his Islanders need in their lineup in this playoff push.
Key fourth-line center Casey Cizikas (left leg laceration) has not resumed skating yet, but the coach expects that to happen “soon.”
The Islanders, who were off on Sunday and host the Canadiens on Tuesday night in one of their last three games ever at Barclays Center, have gone 2-5-2 in Cizikas’ absence. That includes Saturday afternoon’s 4-0 loss to the NHL-leading Bruins at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, the third time the Islanders have been shut out since Cizikas was cut by Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov’s skate blade on Feb. 11.
Cizikas’ longtime linemate, Cal Clutterbuck, returned to the lineup on Saturday after being sidelined since Dec. 19, when he was slashed across the left wrist by Patrice Bergeron’s skate blade in Boston.
When healthy, the identity-setting trio of Cizikas, Clutterbuck and left wing Matt Martin — a healthy scratch in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Blues in St. Louis — provide grit, forechecking, a boost to the team’s energy level and better four-line balance.
“We need a little more of that in our game,” Trotz said after Saturday’s defeat. “We got a little bit light with the group that we had. You lose a little bit of that identity and today you got Clutter and Marty out there. They’re not necessarily going up and down the ice and being real cute. They’re pretty deliberate in what they do. When Marty and Clutter were out there, they were pretty effective.”
The Islanders still hold the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and are two points behind the third-place Penguins, who have lost six straight, in the Metropolitan Division.
But the Islanders have struggled in these playoff-type games. Their only wins in their last nine games have come against the NHL-worst Red Wings and the Sharks, who are well out of the playoff race in the Western Conference.
Which makes taking advantage of this week’s opportunities even more pressing. None of the Islanders’ next three opponents currently is in a playoff position.
The Canadiens are on the furthest fringe of postseason contention. The Senators, whom the Islanders will face Thursday night in Ottawa, are playing out the string, seventh in the Atlantic Division. The Hurricanes, who will visit the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, are very much in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
“You can’t have those little lapses, and we did,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve kind of had them a couple of times in certain games this year. That’s the stuff that shows when it’s playoff-style hockey.”
Trotz said the Islanders need to be more assertive in their collective play.
“We start to guess on pucks,” he said. “We start to guess on our forecheck. We start to poke and hope and we don’t play through people. That’s not how you win this time of the year and that’s not how you win championships.”