SEATTLE – The Islanders’ growing injury list forced Casey Cizikas, normally their fourth-line center, into different roles. But there’s no changing his dogged tenacity, regardless of his line assignment.
“I’m focused on what I can bring to this team and what the coaches need out of me,” Cizikas said. “And that’s to be hard in our own end. Make sure we’re finishing our checks. I’m battling on every inch in our defensive zone. Getting draws on the penalty kills, getting kills when we need them. And then try to create energy off of the forecheck and put the line after us in a good spot.”
The Islanders opened a four-game western swing on Sunday night against the Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena after sweeping a three-game homestand. Cizikas found himself starting on third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s right wing the past two games before being elevated to top-line center Mathew Barzal’s trio in Thursday’s 2-1 win over the Blue Jackets – his 700th NHL regular-season game – with both Simon Holmstrom and Oliver Wahlstrom joining the absentees.
Despite the increased ice time – Cizikas entered Sunday averaging 13:16 but received a season-high 17:08 in Tuesday’s 5-1 win over the Penguins and 16:24 against the Blue Jackets – he had gone six games without a point. He did have good opportunities in both games, including a shot from the low slot that Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo barely got a piece of late in the first period.
Cizikas had two goals and five assists in his first 36 games this season and went 27 games without a goal before notching his first in a 6-4 road win over the Devils on Dec. 9.
“Thank god,” Cal Clutterbuck, Cizikas’ longtime linemate, said that night. “I was getting worried about the little guy.”
Clutterbuck (injured reserve/upper body) missed his sixth straight game on Thursday but is traveling with the team and participated in Saturday’s practice in Seattle. His absence from the usual fourth line with Cizikas and Matt Martin likely gave coach Lane Lambert the flexibility to use Cizikas in other spots in the lineup.
Which has given Cizikas more chances to produce offensively.
“It’s always nice to chip in,” said Cizikas, who had two goals in three games from Dec. 9-13. “I definitely don’t want to go that long again. I’m just going to keep trying to play the way that I play and hopefully that will happen more. But it’s not something that I’m overly thinking about all the time.”
Cizikas notched a career-high 20 goals in 2018-19 – Barry Trotz’s first of four seasons as Islanders coach – but had compiled just 29 since then entering Sunday.
Like most NHL players, Cizikas produced at a much greater rate in junior hockey. He had 29 goals and 35 assists in 52 games his final season for Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League.
But Cizikas said it didn’t take any great epiphany for him to realize how he had to play to have success in the NHL, nor was it a tough adjustment.
“When I first got called up, I realized that was the way I was going to have to play if I wanted to stay here,” Cizikas said. “That was something that not necessarily I played that way my entire life, but it was definitely in my game and something that I could adapt to easily.
“When you’re young, you do what you have to do to make the team successful. And if they ask of you to do that, you try to do the best at it and eventually they’re going to lean on you in key situations.”