Casey Cizikas, one of the guys who has been on this team for a while, finds himself really enjoying watching people hitching rides on the Islanders bandwagon as the team has extended its playoff run to the NHL semifinals.
"It's exciting,’’ Cizikas said Saturday, on the eve of Game 1 of the best-of-seven semifinal series against the Lightning which begins in Tampa Sunday afternoon. "You see them at the games, they're cheering, they're going nuts, and that's what you want. You want to you want to build this, this team, and you want fans to be supportive.
"You see the love from everywhere, and people are starting to believe in us,’’ he said. "As a group, that changes everything. You want to go out there, you want to compete for them, and you want to do whatever you can to keep them coming.’’
Cizikas, 30, a fourth-round pick by the Islanders in 2009 who’s been a regular since the 2012-13 season, especially wants to compete against the Lightning, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
A year ago, he was forced out of the lineup, and out of the Edmonton bubble after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final series between the Isles and Lightning, because of a detached retina in his eye. The Islanders lost to the Lightning in six games before Tampa Bay went on to beat the Dallas Stars in the final and win the Cup.
"It was frustrating,’’ Cizikas said Saturday of his early departure last year. "I took it hard. You get so far and to kinda have to go out like that, it wasn't easy. But here we are again, And I'm excited. I think everybody's excited. And we're ready to go.’’
As the center of the Isles’ valuable fourth line, between Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, coach Barry Trotz said the loss of Cizikas last year was a major blow to the Islanders.
"I think he left a huge hole,’’ Trotz said. "Casey brings penalty killing; he gives you grit; he gives you all the late game situations, he gives you faceoffs. And … later on, [defenseman Adam] Pelech went out, so those are two pretty big ingredients to what we do.’’
The 5-11, 195-pound Cizikas led all players in faceoff percentage through the first two rounds, winning 61.4 percent (97-of-158) of his draws. And he is one of the Isles’ most important penalty killers, though the Isles’ PK will need to be much better in this series than it was against Boston, when it allowed seven goals in 14 times shorthanded.
With Tampa Bay’s power play clicking at 41.7 percent in the first two rounds (15-for-36) it will be crucial for the Islanders to limit the number of penalties they take. But they still will need to be better when they do find themselves a man down.
"They’ve got threats from everywhere,’’ Cizikas said of Tampa Bay. "So as a PK, we’ve got to be disciplined. We can do that — know our routes, and not give them second opportunities. When the puck's on our stick, we've got to get it down [to the opposite end of the ice]. And we’ve just got to battle. We’ve got to make it hard on them, we’ve got to make it uncomfortable for them.’’
Cizikas knows the Islanders are an underdog going into the series. He’s not intimidated.
"We're a confident group right now, and our game is where it has to be,’’ he said. "We're going to play hard. We're going to play our style and they're going to have to beat us. We're not going to beat ourselves. We're going to play straight line hockey, we're going to get pucks in deep, and we're just going to play as hard as we can.’’