Casey Cizikas saw an unrecognizable team play in Columbus on Friday. The Islanders center was more familiar with how he and the Isles played in the team’s home opener Saturday night — faster, more aggressive and more in line with a solid month of training camp.
“Yesterday was unacceptable,” he said. “We came out with a purpose tonight. We looked like the team we want to be.”
Cizikas and John Tavares each scored twice. Tavares snapped one past Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner at the 1:50 mark of the first period and Cizikas and Tavares scored shorthanded goals 50 seconds apart in the second as the Islanders broke free from Friday’s ugly season debut for a 6-3 win over Buffalo at Barclays Center.
The Isles scored three times in a 1:47 span of the second, with Tavares getting a gift-wrapped pass from Sabres defenseman Nathan Beaulieu before stalking in alone to beat Lehner. Cizikas raced onto Andrew Ladd’s head-man pass and blasted one off the post and in. And Josh Ho-Sang, serving an extra minor to Scott Mayfield, raced out of the box behind the Sabres’ net to find Josh Bailey cruising in for a goal that made it 4-0 and chased Lehner from the net.
Not to be outdone by the Sabres’ power-play futility, the Isles surrendered two shorthanded goals to Evander Kane in the second to make the middle period a certified weird one. It still was far better than the 5-0 pasting the Islanders suffered in Columbus a night earlier.
“It was a different game for sure,” said Jordan Eberle, who forced a turnover, sped down and flipped a pass onto Tavares’ stick for the opening goal in a strong night for the new Isles winger. “After getting shut out last night, I thought it was big for us to get that one early, big for our confidence offensively.”
The Islanders, who outshot the Sabres 26-15 at even strength, restored a three-goal lead on Anthony Beauvillier’s rebound put-away at 5:39 of the third.
Jack Eichel swept home a rebound to cut the Isles’ lead to 5-3 with 3:44 to go, but Jaroslav Halak made two superb stops in the final minutes, one on old friend Kyle Okposo, among his 26 saves before Cizikas hit the empty net with 25.4 seconds left.
Asked about the areas in which his team was better Saturday than it had been Friday, coach Doug Weight replied: “You name it. Just pace, much better in the north and south zones. We were on our toes, we played with energy. We’ve got some things to fix five-on-four, but five-on-five, we were excellent.”
With Cal Clutterbuck (hip) out, Cizikas played between Beauvillier and Ho-Sang much of the night and didn’t look out of place. That had a lot to do with every Islander playing an assertive game, the sort Weight and his staff had in mind when the Isles finished off the preseason a week ago.
“We did a good job creating chances, we played with speed, didn’t turn the puck over in the neutral zone,” Cizikas said. “It all starts with our captain getting that first one. He was outstanding and we followed up tonight.”