SYOSSET, N.Y. – If you looked closely enough, you could actually see the blue streak emanating from New York Islander coach Jack Capuano’s mouth as he led practice Thursday. Good thing there weren’t too many kids around. In fact, if Sesame Street had been there to tape the workout, it would have been one of those days brought to you by the letter ‘F’.
“Unfortunately, it’s a little bit of the hockey culture that you have a lot of ‘F’-bombs,” said Islanders fourth-line winger Matt Martin. “It might not be the best thing in the world, but it is what it is. Maybe one day we’ll try to clean that up a little bit.”
Yeah, and maybe one day Charlie Brown will connect with that football and telephone solicitors will stop calling during dinner. Capuano used his outdoor voice during much of the practice imploring his team to be better. Because truth be told, as was the case in much of the first round, the Islanders are being outplayed. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a 197-142 in shot attempts in the series and are killing the Islanders in the possession game. And if goalie Thomas Greiss, who posted a playoff-worst .878 save percentage in Game 3, is finally coming back to earth, that’s not good news for the Islanders.
The Islanders have given up a whopping 59.8 shot attempts per game in the playoffs, which is easily the worst of the 16 teams in the tournament. The Lightning have given up just 37.8, which is second best. Twenty-two more pucks directed at the opposing net is a staggering margin.
But on the bright side, Capuano has not had to coax better play out of his team’s so-called fourth-line, which features Martin at left wing, Casey Cizikas at center and Cal Clutterbuck on the right side. There’s little doubt it is the best fourth line in hockey and was one of the brighter spots in the Islanders Game 3 overtime loss. Being designated the best fourth line in hockey is a mixed blessing and a backhanded compliment, sort of like being judged the most modest and well-adjusted Kardashian.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Clutterbuck said. “Nobody wants to be referred to as a ham-handed goon. That’s no fun for anybody. It’s almost like people are saying you’re the best least-skilled players in the game.”
And Capuano is quick to point out that the unit has played a top-six role on occasion since being put together early last season. And it’s not often you see fourth lines out on the ice late in games and in overtime, but Capuano, who acknowledged that he doesn’t get too wound up about matchups, is not shy about putting the trio out in all situations. The fact that Clutterbuck and Cizikas both kill penalties also elevates their minutes.
They are a scary bunch. All three are physically imposing players who chase down pucks and, more importantly, have a pretty good idea of what to do with it once it’s on their sticks. Either or Martin or Clutterbuck has led the league in hits each of the past eight seasons, but both were 35-goal scorers in junior hockey. Cizikas averaged a point per game in his last two Ontario League seasons. And it’s that combination of brute force and decent skill that makes the three of them so unique.
“I think definitely the pressure we put on people to move the puck creates a lot of turnovers for us,” Clutterbuck said. “And the size of Marty and his ability to, I don’t want to say put the fear in people, but definitely make people second guess who’s coming over their shoulder, is something that causes people to sometimes make decisions that they otherwise wouldn’t. And you throw in enough skill to cash in chances and that’s what you get.”
So the trio doesn’t make the Islanders any better of a puck possession team, one area of the game where they have some improving to do, but they do play a style that helps them get the puck back, particularly in the offensive zone. Clutterbuck said going into Game 4, he’s not the least bit worried about the Islanders and their ability to come back in the series, and much of that confidence should come from the play of their fourth line.
“When you need a big goal, you can count on those guys to go out there and get some (offensive) zone time,” Capuano said. “They’re an impressive group. I don’t think it goes unnoticed. They’re physical and they do a lot of things right on the video and they play the game the right way.”
There’s also a sense of accountability among the three of them because they’re all such good friends. There’s not an awful lot Capuano has to say to them because they do such a good job of keeping each other in line. “As hard as they work, and as physical as they are and as structured as they are, there’s still a little bit of argument going through those guys shift by shift when they come back to the bench when somebody doesn’t do the right thing,” Capuano said. “And that’s what I really love about that line, the accountability of with those guys. It’s fun. You don’t have to say much because they’re doing all the talking. You can’t get a word in anyway if you try to talk to those guys.”
HICKEY GOOD TO GO: Defenseman Thomas Hickey, who took a blow to the head just prior to the overtime goal in Game 3, practiced and declared himself fit to play Game 4. He underwent the concussion protocol after the game. The Islanders thought Brian Boyle should have been penalized and suspended for the hit, but Hickey said they’ve moved on. Hickey would not say whether it was a direct hit to the head. “It happened so quick, I just felt a blindside,” Hickey said. “If you slow the replay down and watch if frame-by-frame…I don’t want to get into whether it was chest-first or chin-first, but yeah, he got me in the chin.”
PULOCK, NOT SO SURE: Defenseman Ryan Pulock has not played since Game 4 of the first round, with an upper-body injury, was expected for Game 3 of this series, but has yet to be cleared to play. “It’s improving, but it’s never going to be perfect, right?” Pulock said. “It’s going to be a matter of time before it feels good enough and strong enough to go. That could be soon, we’ll just see how the days go.” Friday night would be a good time for Pulock to draw back in to help the Islanders power play, but that’s far from certain. “I think it’s a possibility,” Pulock said. “Every day it feels better and I’m getting to the point where it could be any day. Kind of a game-time decision thing.