For most NHL teams, the fourth line is generally an afterthought — the place where coaches stash penalty-killing specialists, tough guys, and occasionally a skilled guy who’s dressed as lineup insurance and can step up to one of the top three lines in case of an injury or something.
The Islanders aren’t most NHL teams, though. Coach Barry Trotz’ club is one of those rare groups that considers the fourth line a major part of its game plan, and counts on them to make important plays.
Turns out, the Philadelphia Flyers, whom the Islanders faced Monday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series in Toronto, are a four-line team, too.
And that’s what makes the matchup between the Islanders and Flyers so intriguing. Because, as a true four-line team, the Flyers present a different challenge to the Islanders than did their previous opponent, the star-studded Washington Capitals.
“Usually when you're a four-line team, and you play teams that maybe don't play four lines, you can maybe pair up a couple lines to sort of do double duty [matching up against] a top line, for instance,’’ Trotz said of the difference between opposing a four-line team versus a three-line team. “I think when [both] teams play four lines you trust that every line can go against every line. And you just try to get the understanding that, whoever you're lined up against, you try to get the better of them.’’
As the Islanders and Flyers are seemingly evenly matched in just about every category, if either fourth line can outperform the other, it could tip the scales in the series. The Islanders’ fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have combined for three goals and one assist (four points) in the postseason, with Martin scoring two goals, Clutterbuck one, and Cizikas an assist. (Clutterbuck, who missed the final game of the Washington series following a low hit from the Capitals’ Radko Gudas late in the second period of Game 4, was expected to be back in the lineup Monday.)
Philadelphia’s fourth line, of Derek Grant, Nate Thompson and Tyler Pitlick, have combined for two goals and three assists (five points) in the postseason. Thompson had one goal, Pitlick a goal and an assist, and Grant two assists. The Flyers’ trio outscored the Islanders’ trio in the regular season, 27 goals to 18, but injuries limited Cizikas and Clutterbuck to 48 and 37 games, respectively.
Martin said facing a four-line team, as opposed to a three-line team, won’t affect how he, Cizikas and Clutterbuck approach the game.
“From a player perspective, that doesn't really change anything,’’ Martin said. “When we're called upon to go out there and do our job, we just have to go out there and do it. They are a deep team. They have four lines that can play, and do play, and play effective roles for their team. And so do we.
“We're excited for the matchup,’’ he said. “We know they're a good hockey team. We believe we're a good hockey team. And we'll see who comes out on top.’’