The Islanders’ winning goal in Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the Canadiens was set up by their top assists man, Mathew Barzal, and scored by their top goals man, Anders Lee.
These were welcome developments for a team that has been relying too much on defensemen to score and on goalies to stop pucks, and it was the sort of contribution from the top line that likely will be crucial in the playoffs.
And yet the Islanders still are the Islanders, and they proudly insist that they have won and can continue to win by using the formula that got them this far.
That means defense and goaltending, and it means enviable balance among their forward lines. Even though the grand finale against Montreal came from the top of the depth chart, the energetic tone was set by the fourth line.
That would be Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, fan favorites who are not favorites of opponents. They did their usual thing Thursday at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, starting each of the three periods and setting a tone.
“We’ve got 12 games left; it’s time to ramp it up,” Clutterbuck said afterward. “We had 2 ½ weeks there where other teams were ramping it and we weren’t.”
Before the game, coach Barry Trotz said, “I don’t think there’s a forward that’s 20 minutes a night for us; they’re 14-, 15-, 16-minute guys. Everybody contributes. We play a certain way that works for our group. We’re all built a little different. The way we’re built, it’s been successful for us.”
The fourth line is Exhibit A. The Islanders are 29-12-6 with all three in the lineup and 12-10-1 when one was missing, according to MSG Plus.
Barely three minutes in against the Canadiens, Cizikas stole the puck and passed it to Clutterbuck, who dropped it for Martin, who missed high. Clutterbuck almost put the rebound past Montreal goaltender Carey Price.
Midway through the second, Price stopped Martin at the doorstep with his right pad. The line later mounted a flurry in front of Price, after which Cizikas banged himself on his helmet in frustration three times with his stick.
“Any time you can get out there and play in the o-zone and create chances, it’s a fun hockey game,” Clutterbuck said. “With the way the team is this year, everyone’s got to be pulling the rope offensively.”
The trio was hailed in 2014-15 and 2015-16 as perhaps the best fourth line in the league. Martin left for the Maple Leafs for two seasons, but he returned for this one and they picked up where they left off.
Minor injuries caused mixing and matching earlier this month, but after the three were reunited against the Blue Jackets on Monday and sparked a 2-0 win, Trotz said they are a rare group that is more than the sum of its parts.
“When they’re on, you can play them against anybody; you can play any style against them,” Trotz said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the [Sidney] Crosbys of the world or you’re playing a fourth-line, banging team. They can play against anybody, which is a blessing for us.”
Cizikas said before the game, “I think the three of us together complement each other really well. We all bring a different aspect to the game and it just jells well. We read off each other. We’re very open with each other. If somebody has something to say, we say it. We don’t hold anything back.
“When we’re out there, we have one goal in mind, and that’s to get the puck in deep. Nobody likes playing behind their own goal line. I don’t care who you are, you don’t like doing it. So our mentality is to get it there and try to grind you out.
“We’re not going to make fancy plays. We’re not going to throw pucks to areas where it’s a high-danger place. We’ll keep it simple. We’ll get pucks to the net and we’ll wear you down.”