Islanders' fourth line giving first-rate effort
Don Cherry's hockey wisdom is usually reserved for the good folks to our north, but if he says something interesting -- preferably of the non-xenophobic type -- word trickles down.
So when the "Coach's Corner" talking head and impressive suit-wearer pronounced the Isles' fourth line, with Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, "maybe the best fourth line ever in hockey" in January, it was noteworthy.
Now, Cherry is not exactly in step with the new NHL, where possession and scoring chances trump hits and fights. But pretty much most NHL fourth lines are built to do the same thing: Give the skilled guys a breather while wearing out the opposing team with a few big hits and a little havoc in the opposing end.
They have had some down moments over the two-plus years Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck have been together. But there have been plenty of games like Monday's, when Jack Capuano called his fourth line "our best line, by far." And not because of hitting and gritting, to coin a phrase.
"We know what we're supposed to do and when we do it well, it's a good feeling," said Clutterbuck, who scored the third goal (off good, hard work by Cizikas) in the Isles' 4-0 win over the Flames. "Our jobs don't change much night to night."
Martin is certainly valuable at even strength with his two linemates. But this season, through nine games, Cizikas and Clutterbuck have been the standouts, partly for their speed and directness when the fourth line is together and partly for being two of the forwards who get a great deal of penalty-killing time.
The Islanders' penalty-kill was discussed early and often last season, for all the wrong reasons. Even during a 4-0-0 start, the Isles gave up five power-play goals in 13 times short. For over half last season, their conversion rate hovered below 70 percent, the Mendoza line of sorts for penalty killers -- anything below that is historically bad.
But something flipped in Febuary. After allowing power-play goals in all manner of ways -- one-timers off cross-ice passes, rebounds with minimal coverage in front, screened shots -- the Islanders figured out what assistant coach Greg Cronin was looking for.
They allowed seven PPGs over the final 28 games of last season, working at an 89.9-percent success rate. Through nine games this season, the Isles are second in the league at 91.2 percent and have killed off 21 straight.
"It's honestly just trusting the guys you have out there with you," Cizikas said. "You're not second-guessing where everyone's going to be. The way we struggled early last season ended up being a great learning experience. We saw what can happen when we're not executing things right."
Cizikas in particular has excelled on shorthanded faceoffs, winning nine of 17 (52.9 percent). In his first full season of 2013-14, Cizikas won just 36.9 percent of his shorthanded draws.
The rest of the fancy stats don't work in the fourth line's favor. They're not usually in the top rankings for Corsi or Fenwick. But the Martin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck trio seems to shine when simplicity is needed -- in the playoffs, for instance, where they totaled three goals out of the Isles' 15 in their loss to the Caps.
Or in Barclays Center this season, where a bouncy ice surface hasn't exactly rewarded the high-skill players' moves.
"When that flow gets disrupted, that's when our line needs to come up big and get the team going," Cizikas said. "We've done a decent job of that so far. But we have to keep working hard."