There’s plenty of beauty in ugly hockey, at least when it comes to the Islanders and their gritty fourth line, so as the Isles prepare to take on the Panthers Thursday, coach Jack Capuano hopes that their hard-nosed play becomes contagious.
And if not, well, you might just be seeing more of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin.
“They’re a physical group and when you step out on the ice and you’re the opposition, you’re going to know Clutterbuck, Cizikas and Martin are out there,” Capuano said after practice Wednesday at Iceworks in Syosset — the Isles’ final Long Island practice before traveling to Florida for Game 1. “It’s a group that when you show video and you’re trying to do things the right way, that’s the way they do things.”
Capuano added: “They’re a grinding group so any time that you look at a group that plays anywhere from 10 to 12 minutes, you know, honestly, they could play a lot more this series.”
It’s easy to tell why. This fourth line is widely respected, and its physicality balances out the skill lines while still producing goals of its own.
Clutterbuck diagnosed their success handily: “Casey especially is extremely underrated with his ability to get in there and make plays,” he said. “Matty does of a good job of going in to turn the puck over and making defensemen really think about going back to get it. Casey does a really good job of being second on the puck, grabbing the puck and making plays. You put that combination together, and I like to shoot the puck, so it’s a good mix.”
Martin is the perennial hits leader — he has 365 this year — to go with 10 goals and nine assists. Clutterbuck has 288 hits, along with 15 goals and eight assists, while Cizikas has 62 blocks, with eight goals and 22 assists. They have 10 game-winning goals among them (Martin one, Cizikas four and Clutterbuck five). The top line of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen have 11.
“The physicality is something that’s always kind of just there,” Clutterbuck said. “I think it’s something that wears on defenseman . . . The timing (of their goals) I can’t explain, but the ability to score, a lot of it has to do with just the compatibility with the line and the ability to just make that play.”
Cizikas agreed that the comfort level between the three was integral to their success, and added that their play filters up to the first line. “When our top line might need a 30-second rest before we put them back out, we’re going to go out there and try to run down whoever we’re playing against,” he said. “We’re going to keep being relentless.”
The one downside is that maintaining a breakneck pace can wear on players down the stretch. Despite a three-day rest after the regular season, the Islanders are coming off a week where they played five games in seven days, and Thursday night they begin a three-games-in-four-days span.
But they’re not complaining. In fact, Capuano, Clutterbuck and Cizikas all agreed the playoffs were made for their particular brand of “ugly” hockey.
“It works right into our hands — the physicality, the excitement,” Cizikas said. “It’s going to be getting pucks in deep, it’s going to be going to the net hard and getting those greasy goals in, that’s something we have to try to take advantage of.”
After all, it doesn’t have to be pretty, does it?
“No,” Cizikas said, smiling. “No, it does not.”