TAMPA, Fla. — Quite early in Game 1 Wednesday night, you could tell it was going to be a different night for the Islanders’ fourth line.
The unfortunate result of Casey Cizikas’ huge hit on the Lightning’s Erik Condra was that Condra had to leave the game just 4:45 in with an apparent concussion. Cizikas had followed through on a clean hit and Condra landed hard against the end boards.
But that play and a handful of others less damaging in the opening period showed the best of what the Matt Martin- Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck line can do and did often through the regular season: Not just hard hits but a strong forecheck and a surprising number of good scoring chances.
As essential as the members of that line were to the Islanders’ regular-season success, they will be needed this series to inflict a physical toll on the Lightning’s defense and do it cleanly, something they could not accomplish in a frustrating series against the Panthers.
“From the start of that Florida series, we had the mental focus to be physical, but perhaps there were times we gave ourselves up just to run guys,” Clutterbuck said after the Islanders’ 5-3 win in Game 1. His empty-net goal on a feed from Cizikas sealed it with 54.8 seconds to go, the first points for any of the three this postseason.
“I think tonight we were back to doing what we did all year,” Clutterbuck said. “Still being physical but also controlling the play and making the other team work hard to get out of our way.”
The line that “Hockey Night in Canada” wag Don Cherry loves so very much just seemed out of sync from the start of the first round, when the three totaled 24 penalty minutes, several of them after whistles. Seven of those 12 minors put the Islanders down a man, and all were in the first four games of the series.
“I think honestly there were a couple bad calls against our line last round,” said Martin, who was called for roughing after a whistle in Game 3 before a scrum even ensued. “You take a few penalties and you have to adjust the way you play, which is something we try not to do. I thought we were better with that the last couple games of the Florida series, and we carried that over.”
There also were some scoring chances that were missing in the first round. Clutterbuck rang one off the crossbar in the second period and Martin hit a post in the third. For a line that totaled 33 goals this season, those scoring chances have become expected.
Also expected are the hits. Each of the three had cracks at putting a body on Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman in Game 1 and didn’t pass up a chance to do so.
“Florida had a lot of big, steady D-men and Tampa seems to have a few more that like to get up in the rush,” Martin said. “You’re not sending a message, you’re trying to wear them down over the course of a series. I thought Florida’s ‘D’ got a little tired at the end there of all the hits we were putting on them.”