The Islanders’ lineup is nearly whole again.
Which means it really is now or never for turning around their season.
Centers Casey Cizikas and Brock Nelson returned for Saturday night’s game against the Devils at UBS Arena, leaving injured defenseman Ryan Pulock (lower body) as the only unavailable Islander.
Nelson missed seven games with a lower-body injury and on Nov. 27, Cizikas became the eighth — and, so far, last — Islander to test positive for COVID-19. He missed five games.
"I think, No. 1, is let’s get back to a personal identity of what has made players successful," coach Barry Trotz said before the game. "Be it Casey, the identity line. They haven’t had quite the impact that they’ve had in the past. So let’s individually get back. I can go up and down the lineup. Get back to your personal identity within the group so we can get back to our group identity.
"I don’t think we’ve been able to do that very much, for a number of reasons. At the same time, there’s a certain value to what you do within the group, so make sure it’s really high. There should be some internal competition because we’ve got some people that are coming back and healthy."
The Islanders entered Saturday having lost 12 of their last 13 (1-9-3) after Thursday night’s heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the visiting Predators on Eeli Tolvanen’s goal with 11.5 seconds left in regulation. The Islanders could not protect a 3-2 third-period lead.
Entering Saturday’s play, that left them 20 points out of the Metropolitan Division’s third and final guaranteed playoff spot and 12 points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot.
Cizikas’ return did not mean his nominal fourth line with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck was completely back together. Trotz opted to keep Ross Johnston in the lineup for a fourth straight game rather than dressing Martin.
Regardless, Cizikas was clear on what he needed to bring to the Islanders to help them regain the hard-working identity they’ve forged in their first three seasons under Trotz.
"Energy," Cizikas said. "That’s the biggest thing for me is bring energy. Shift in, shift out, be the hardest worker on the ice and don’t give the teams anything. That’s what I’m going to focus on. First step, go after the puck, go after whoever has it and try to get the crowd going and into it."
Nelson’s return should be a boost to the Islanders’ goal production.
The second-line center was leading the Islanders with nine goals when he was injured and returned to the lineup still one ahead of Oliver Wahlstrom for the team lead. A game before getting injured, Nelson had scored both goals, including one on the power play, in a 5-2 loss to the Flames on Nov. 20 in the first contest at the Islanders’ new $1.1 billion home.
"I’ve never had to deal with injuries, luckily, so kind of the first time," Nelson said. "Missing time is not fun watching games. It’s a different game watching up top. You want to be involved and in the mix and help this team win."
So what did Nelson see from afar?
"When you’re watching from up top, it’s a little slower and it looks like there’s a lot of space," Nelson said. "But you know in your head when you’re actually out there, it’s not like that. I thought we played some pretty good games. The last game even comes down to 11 seconds. You just want to kind of turn that and get the wave to go in our favor and go on a run."